On the eve of the appearance of the long-awaited management plan for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Montezuma County commissioners are voicing concern about the future of grazing on the monument – and, in a broad sense, on all public lands.
In recent years, many grazing permits on the monument have been sharply cut either as to numbers of animals or the time they are allowed to graze.
While many environmentalists and recreationalists welcome the cutbacks — some, in fact, would be happy to see public-lands grazing disappear — the commissioners say that could be disastrous for the county’s economy, culture, and open spaces.
They also point out that, during discussions just before the monument was created in 2000, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt repeatedly assured local citizens that traditional uses could continue on the land.
The difference in philosophy between the commission and publiclands managers led the commission to send a sharply worded letter to the local congressional delegation that effectively blocked a possible purchase of some private inholdings by the monument.
In the letter, dated April 30 and sent to Sen. Wayne Allard, Sen. Ken Salazar, and Rep. John Salazar, the commissioners said they opposed efforts by the BLM “to acquire private property in the McElmo Canyon area for incorporation in the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (CANM).”
Canyons of the Ancients, unlike most other national monuments, is managed by the BLM.
“A persistent reason for opposing the creation of the Monument . . . was that creating a Monument would provide a pretext for pressuring livestock grazing off of public land, setting up the acquisition of private ranches by the BLM National Monument,” the commissioners wrote. “We were repeatedly assured that grazing management would be handled in the same manner as on other BLM lands.
“In spite of these assurances, a series of EAs [environmental assessments] began to be released using selective rangeland monitoring and assessments, conducted during the worst drought on record, to justify deep and permanent AUM [Animal Unit Months] cuts. As a County Commission, we commented on the bleak and negative tone of these documents, and the threat that they represented to the future of ranching in Montezuma County. . . .
“We wish to make it clear that we are not opposed to good range management practices and compliance with the rules. But given the history of the creation and management of the Monument since 1999, we want no part in any effort to ‘encourage’ any rancher with his back against the wall to sell to the government. If this succeeds, who is next? And how big will the Monument eventually grow?”
Listed for sale
The inholdings in question involved several parcels owned by Wesley Wallace and his family that lie within the monument’s boundaries. Wallace, a longtime rancher, recently decided to move to New Mexico and put his lands up for sale.
BLM officials were interested in acquiring the tracts, which lie in the Hamilton Mesa, Flodine Park and Yellow Jacket Canyon areas, part of the monument, so they sought money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which can be used for land acquisition. But Wallace reportedly told the commissioners he did not want to sell to the BLM.
Commissioner Larrie Rule said Wallace was angry because he’d heard a rumor the commissioners had written a letter supporting the sale, so at its next meeting the board drafted the letter they sent.
“If Wallaces wanted to sell, we probably would have gone along with it,” Rule said. “But they said, no, we don’t want to sell to them.”
He said the commissioners’ fear was, “If we said OK to begin with, that’s what they’d sure enough try to do to everyone. We really didn’t want to set a precedent like that.”
But LouAnn Jacobson, monument manager, said the land was for sale and the monument was simply acting like any other potential buyer.
“The property was listed with a Realtor,” Jacobson said. “If the property is listed for sale I have to think that’s a willing seller. A lot of those property owners have come to us and said, ‘I’d like my property to be part of this monument.’ We actually have a waiting list of individuals interested in selling their property to the BLM.”
She said the use of eminent domain to condemn the land was never considered.
Split and sold
But the commissioners all told the Free Press they believe that publiclands policies – in particular on the monument – are edging ranchers toward selling, simply because they can’t make a living if their grazing permits are reduced radically.
“They make it so hard on these people and then they turn around and want to buy their land from them,” said Rule, who was once in the cattle business himself.
Chappell said that while the BLM was never seeking to condemn the Wallace inholdings, “they position themselves as the only buyer.”
“It’s really concerning that the whole trend of all these grazing permits that have come up for renewal, every one of them they’ve cut the numbers down or the time down,” said Commission Chair Gerald Koppenhafer. He said AUMs in the monument, and some on San Juan National Forest land, are being cut 20 to 30 percent, sometimes 50 percent. He understands the need for cuts during droughts, “but these are permanent cuts – not to see if it comes back. I find it hard to believe that every one of these allotments is in that kind of shape. I know they’re not.”
Koppenhafer said he’s getting an earful from constituents about the situation.
“Our whole community is based on agriculture to a large degree,” he said. “When you start taking one part of that away, it’s a big problem. Without those permits to run on, you’re eroding the foundation of the whole community.
“The ranchers cannot survive any more. They sell their permits and then their ranches. Then all that open space that was sitting there is going to go away. By their [the agencies’] policy on these grazing permits, they’re going to change our whole community.”
Koppenhafer cited property along the road to Jackson Lake near Mancos. Much of it was owned by the Bader family, longtime ranchers. But they decided to leave the area, and the land was split and sold.
“Look how many houses we’ve got up there now,” Koppenhafer said. “It’s sad to me to see it get broken up like that. It’s one thing when people want to sell it, but when they’re forced to [because of economics], it’s sad.”
The Wallaces decided to sell out, Koppenhafer said, because their grazing permits were either eliminated or severely cut, both on the monument and on the national forest.
A buffer zone
Ranchers with grazing permits in the monument own approximately 35,250 acres of private land in Montezuma County, according to Mike Preston, federal-lands coordinator for the county. Private lands owned by all BLM permittees in Montezuma County amounts to about 53,000 acres, he said. In addition, many of the permittees own land in Dolores and San Miguel counties.
The county contends if grazing permits are cut much, many ranchers will no longer be able to keep that private land and will sell it for development.
Preston said viable ranching is a boon to the monument. Many permittees’ lands lie on the monument boundaries, especially in McElmo Canyon. “The discussion has been that these ranchers staying viable and staying intact is the most important protection for the monument boundaries,” Preston said. “The county has always argued the best buffer zone is working ranches.”
Jacobson agreed. “Certainly we prefer to have open space and ranchland around the monument as opposed to subdivisions.”
But monument officials say they are acting in accordance with BLM policies.
Mike Jensen, a BLM rangeland specialist, said the agency conducted a comprehensive rangeland health assessment in 2001 on all the grazing allotments within the monument. Based on that data as well as 20 years of previous monitoring, an interdisciplinary resource team found that in many cases, the allotments were not meeting standards set by the BLM state office.
There are five types of standards, Jensen said, and three were particular problems: upland soils, riparian areas, and healthy, productive plant and animal communities.
“Upland soils and healthy plants are sort of tied together,” he said. “Riparian areas can improve a lot quicker if you make changes, but the other two take longer to come back because of the fragile soils and [scant] precipitation.”
Jensen said there are currently 28 grazing allotments on the monument with 20 permittees holding permits, although that number changes. Permits are typically issued for 10 years, though they can be for shorter periods.
As a result of litigation in the 1990s, the BLM must do an environmental assessment or analysis before renewing permits.
If problems are found and a cause is determined, officials must “make whatever changes are appropriate to make progress toward meeting rangeland standards,” Jacobson said.
She and Jensen said there is no intention to pressure ranchers off their lands. “Absolutely not,” Jacobson said.
Jensen said each allotment is considered on a case-by-case basis and that the agency tries to balance concerns for land health with economic impacts on the operator.
Reductions are not the first measure looked at, he said. “We see if it could be fixed by implementing a more intensive management system – rotations, shifting the season of use, fences. Can we put some range improvements in that will solve things? We try to get the permittee to identify what they can do.”
Usually two or three permits come up for renewal each year. “On the last permit we had, we didn’t adjust the AUMs (Animal Unit Months),” Jensen said. “There were no cuts.”
“Mike has worked really hard with the permittees to negotiate ways we can achieve our goals and balance those with the impacts on the permittee, and I think with one exception we have come to pretty satisfactory agreements,” Jacobson said.
But the commissioners painted a different picture in their April 30 letter, writing that the county’s efforts to work with the agencies on range monitoring and stewardship “were largely met with dismissal or resistance.”
The letter continues that the commission supported the appointment of a monument advisory committee, but the management alternatives it recommended have been “sidelined.”
“With all of these local efforts languishing ‘where the sun don’t shine’, we have recently been confronted with requests to support the acquisition of 4,500 acres of land for sale by the first rancher to bite the dust,” the letter states.
“We strongly support private property rights, including the right of a property owner to sell to whoever he or she chooses. However, we strongly oppose any attempt to pressure private property owners into selling to the government out of desperation.”
The letter’s final paragraph does state that there have been “many positive working relationships and collaborative efforts that the County is involved in on the San Juan Public Lands. . .”
“The issues that we raise in this letter are specifically in response to efforts to draw us into something that we in no way condone,” it states.
The board maintains that land-management policies have changed radically in the last 10 or 15 years and it makes no sense to suddenly say lands are in bad shape when they’ve been grazed for decades.
Chappell said he understands cutting animal numbers during drought years, “but to not let them back on – it just looks like an intentional effort to put them in a financial situation to where they can’t survive.”
He said some ranchers may have been “a little sloppy” in their management but he didn’t think that was reason to kick them off the range.
“I would think ranchers who have been in the area and owned land and have been in the monument for years deserve a little more consideration and a little more opportunity to make it right. To just take them off the BLM land and then position themselves to be the only buyer of the private property they have left – it stinks.
“That’s why the private citizens, especially in the West, have mistrust of the government.”
Chappell reiterated that he is not asking for leniency for poor range management. “I think there should be some dialogue,” he said. “I think our BLM should go the extra mile.”
But in the case of the Wallace grazing permits, public-lands managers expressed concerns about their condition even before the monument was established. In 1998, representatives from the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association’s BLM Liaison Committee toured the Wallaces’ spring and winter allotments and found they were in need of rest and rotation. An environmental assessment done by the BLM in 2001 found that conditions on the Wallace allotments in Flodine Park and Hamilton Mesa had been “poor” or “fair” for 15 years, a contention disputed by Wallace.
Rule said cattle on open rangeland will tend to overgraze certain spots where terrain is easier or forage is better, but they’ll leave patches of grass, and then move on. He said overall range health has to be considered, not just test plots.
BLM land is critical to ranchers because it provides winter range, Rule said. “If they keep cutting those winter ranges it’s going to keep cutting the cattleman out,” he said. “If anything it should be going the other way” as the drought eases.
Rule said cattle had always done well on the allotments in question and that cattle can reduce wildfire danger by eating cheatgrass – which is highly flammable when it dies – early in the spring.
But Jensen said cattle aren’t much help with weeds. They tend to spread noxious-weed seeds, and using cattle to control cheatgrass is problematic because the timing has to be just right.
Koppenhafer believes agencies are being pushed to favor recreation over traditional uses. “I think the recreation stuff gets by with murder.”
Recreational use on the San Juan National Forest is harder on the land than cattle-grazing, he said. “You look at the amount of damage done by fourwheelers running on the forest. I could have my cows there for 100 years and they wouldn’t do the damage those four-wheelers are doing,” he said.
The forest’s Mancos-Dolores District is now creating a travel-management plan, he noted, but “they have no way to enforce it,” he said. “With grazing, it’s one guy, they can come and fine you, but they have no way to police all those four-wheelers.”
But Jacobson said the situation is different on the monument. Off-road vehicle travel is banned and officers are strict about citing violators. She said she hasn’t gotten any sense of pressure from environmentalists to eliminate grazing.
Wait and see
Jacobson said monument officials are in a “wait-and-see mode” regarding the Wallace inholdings, although they would have to wait for another funding cycle to get money to buy the land. “The property is still for sale, and there are some very significant cultural-resource values on it and we’re pretty concerned about what happens to those.”
Meanwhile, the monument’s resource management plan/draft environmental impact statement — the monument has operated seven years without one — is due out the end of September. The commissioners say they are concerned about how it may affect ranchers.
Chappell said the public-lands allotments are “more important than ever before” to ranchers these days, considering the high cost of fuel and corn in feed.
“Ag is still a cornerstone of this community,” Chappell said.