May 2016

Get along, little dogies!

By Dexter Gill

What is that all over the highway? Strange-looking big greenish blobs, where would they have come from? Wow, look, there is a herd of cattle in the middle of the road! Quick, grab the camera, this is so exciting — we are in the middle of an Old West cattle drive!


Twice a year around here that can be the highlight of a tourist’s visit to Montezuma County. The locals just take it in stride, even if we do get delayed a little. Be honest, now, we enjoy knowing there are people still willing to work hard at the way of life that helped build this corner of Colorado out of the desolate and dry high desert.

Who doesn’t like a natural, free-range, grass-fed T-bone steak or lamb chop fresh off the grill? Well, maybe not the two vegans that I heard actually moved into this ranching country. But I’m pretty sure even the vegans like good wool or leather clothing. Guess where leather and wool come from. No, they are not mysteriously created in the back room of Walmart, they actually come from cattle and sheep. For well over 120 years the ranchers worked at providing meat and products for clothing for mining towns and others. In recent years, the newcomers are making noises like “we don’t want cattle and sheep to be on our public lands.” I guess they don’t realize the lands are not theirs, but a lot of other people’s too. They try to sound kinda nice by saying they appreciate the hard-working ranchers, farmers, miners that developed this nice area for them to enjoy, but they don’t need them anymore. Sound crazy? Well, it’s not!

There is a lot of ignorance being expressed regarding livestock grazing on public lands. Here are a few bits of information you are likely not aware of.

The combination of logging and grazing was the catalyst that enabled the current beautiful stands of ponderosa pines to reproduce. The hundreds of water holes that now attract ducks and other wildlife were constructed by the ranchers at their own personal expense. The miles of fencing to provide for management of the range were all the ranchers’ responsibility, except early on sometimes the Forest service was able to provide some of the wire, but all other costs was on the rancher. The rancher-built water sources have expanded wildlife numbers, health and variety. Management and use of the timber increased the forage for livestock as well as elk and deer. If you were hunting elk, you went to good cattle range areas; elk aren’t dumb — they know where the food is best.

Good livestock-grazing aids in wildfire control costs and efforts. What about grazing fees? you ask. Some are quick to point out the wide discrepancy in renting private land vs. public land allotment fees. If the public lands constructed and guaranteed access to the necessary watering facilities, constructed and maintained all the fencing, provided protection from public vandals, protection from carnivores like lion, bear and coyote, conducted range improvement to increase the forage, then the differences in fees would be partially resolved.

Another little-known fact is that the rancher pays his annual allotment fees to the federal agency, then the state sends him a tax bill for “possessory interest” for the fees he pays for the allotment. He is taxed on what he pays out for “rent,” then IF he actually makes anything, he pays taxes on that also.

So why am I bringing this up? Well, things have been and are changing. The conservation and health of our public lands and resources are in danger. Grazing and timbering are two of the principal tools that resource managers need for managing the forests for water, wildlife, and local economy. Ranching here is a real-life “living history” that tourists are excited about. The grazing allotments are being reduced in carrying capacity, due to overly dense trees crowding out forage. Non-tax-paying groups are working to end all grazing on public lands. For example, the Wild Earth Guardians state that “Livestock have done more damage to the Earth than the chainsaw and bulldozer combined.” Their action plan is “Calling for Grazing Permit Retirement Legislation.” The Center for Biodiversity works to create “Wildlands” and “a future in which species and ecosystems are finally afforded primacy among public lands priorities.” That means no use by man, mountain bikes, ORVs, jet skis, snowmobiles, etc. A listed achievement was “retirement of a number of grazing allotments in southwest national forests and removal of cattle from 330 miles of rivers in the Gila River basin.”

Many allotments on Forests and BLM have been ended and more are expected, all due to pressures from groups like these.

There is a current fascination with old history, like Indian ruins, Escalante trail, restoring the first water flume. This area could become a destination place to see and experience actual living and working history of the real West, but not if the pseudo-environmental groups kill it first!

Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.