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New Forest Plan Triggers Debate On Public Lands Grazing

A new plan is in the works for National Forests in Southeast Utah. It's been 31 years since the Forest Plans were last updated, and one of the bigger issues so far is grazing on public lands. 

Mary Obrien is the Forest Programs Director for the Grand Canyon Trust. She’s been touring Utah with artist Heidi Snyder, who has completed twelve nature paintings of local natural habitats.   

“Together they show a lot of ways that grazing can impact the species on our wild lands and our ecosystems.”

Obrien presents new science that predicts higher temperatures and altered rain patterns on the Colorado Plateau will worsen grazing impacts.

“With global warming, with a loss of pollinators, with water becoming extraordinarily precious.”

Obrien says the public doesn’t realize how widespread grazing is on public lands.

“The three national forests in Utah that are on the Colorado Plateau, the Dixie and the Fish Lake and the Manti-Lasal, all together, 97 percent of their acres are in active grazing allotment.”

96 Percent of the Grand Staircase National Monument is grazed, and those numbers are not disputed by ranchers. 

“One of the multiple uses is clearly forest harvest, but it isn’t done everywhere. Motorized recreation is a multiple use. But it’s not done everywhere. No other multiple use is going everywhere.”

Utah ranchers seem to have little to worry about with a sympathetic new Republican administration Dave Eliason serves on the Public Lands Council for the Utah Cattlemens Association.

“We’re quite optimistic that maybe things will be a little better for the grazing industry.”

Mark Wintsch, Vice President of the Cattlemen, is more cautiously optimistic.

“I wouldn’t expect that many changes. As the past has shown, there’s not a whole lot, even with the change in administration. A lot of these things are really driven within the bureau.”

The Utah Cattlemen have lobbied to give grazing priority over wildlife and recreation, also to end new wilderness and wilderness study areas, and to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

“The Endangered Species Act could use some major reform, yeah. I wouldn’t say that we would be down with getting rid of it totally, but there are some major reforms that are necessary.”

Wintch, whose ranch is 90 percent on public lands, says the multiple use concept has been skewed by recreational uses.

“The three general multiple uses, ranching, mining, timber, those kind of things have all taken a back seat to recreation. As the recreation has increased, some of the grazing has actually decreased. And groups particularly such as the Grand Canyon Trust have made a concerted effort to skew the facts and to paint grazing in a negative light.”

Obrien says the Trust provides facts the public needs to know.

“The budgets of the Forest Service and BLM are so low. They have fewer scientists than ever. So that’s a role citizen scientists and academic scientists and retired scientists, all of those have a really critical role to play.”

In the next two months, Utah green groups will submit “alternative” grazing plans for both the Forest Service and the Grand Staircase. 

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."