Tribune editorial: Cows need to keep a low profile in Utah tourist areas

(Tribune File Photo) Boaters are dwarfed by the sandstone walls of Lake Powell, The lighter colors of the shore denote the low water level on July 21, 2006.

The National Park Service shut down one of the top swimming spots at Lake Powell last week because ranchers didn’t remove two dead cows stuck in the sand.

After the rising lake swamped their carcasses, park officials closed “the sweet spot,” a cove near Lone Rock Beach, fearing bacteria levels in the warm lake water.

Insert “Lake Foul” joke here.

Go ahead and laugh, but Utah may feel it. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, home to Lake Powell, is the No. 1 tourist draw in the state. More than 4.5 million people came last year. They came to rent houseboats, hike slot canyons, water ski and swim in the otherworldly landscape where red sandstone meets blue water. They didn’t come for the high coliform count.

Hey, it’s a big lake, and two decomposing cows won’t turn it into a sewage pond. But in the hyper-competitive tourism industry, they might just make another lake a little more attractive to some vacationers. If that happens, the economic losses could be much more than a thousand pounds of wasted beef.

Ranchers were grazing cows in Glen Canyon for nearly a century before Lake Powell was created. Despite all the rhetoric, balancing multiple uses is still the guiding principle on Utah’s public lands. The cows now share their space with millions of tourists, and the ranchers are going to need to keep a better eye on their herds. Otherwise, the strays draw unwanted attention.

In 2014, a newsmaking cow got stuck in Peek-a-Boo Canyon, one of the more popular slot canyons for hikers in what was then the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument. In that case, the ranchers made it worse by trying to remove the carcass by burning it, turning the big mess into a big, charred mess.

Flat beef prices and foreign competitors make ranching a tough business, and ranchers already have financial incentive to get their cows to market. But they are supposed to keep their animals out of slot canyons and soft sand, and maybe they need more consequences when they fail to do that. They chafe at all the grazing regulations on federal lands, but it’s rare that anyone is fined for violating them. Witness Cliven Bundy.

The tourism industry doesn’t want to squeeze the ranchers out of southern Utah. Travelers like to see cattle, and a few authentic cattle punchers, among the rock spires.

But we can’t have cows making headlines.

Return to Story