Grazing plan? Those are fighting words on Grand Staircase
Push to shift oversight from monument managers to BLM revives old battle lines.
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One loose end that never got worked out after the Grand Staircase-Escalante became a national monument in 1996 was how many cows the place could support without torturing the grasslands and streams that help make it a unique desert landscape.

It was just too controversial at a time when Utah was smarting over President Bill Clinton's designation of the monument without local support, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials acknowledge.

Apparently it still is.

Government managers tried to create a plan — due more than a decade ago — but were pressured by ranchers and southern Utah politicians to hold the status quo, and eventually they dropped it altogether. Now locals and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, want grazing oversight stripped from monument managers and handed to a more sympathetic BLM field office in Kanab.

Meanwhile, the BLM continues to permit 11,000 cow-calf pairs, and their effects on the 1.9 million-acre monument remain hotly disputed. Sensing that the monument crew was about to restart an environmental study to craft a grazing plan, Garfield County commissioners, the area conservation district and Hatch wrote to BLM headquarters seeking a change of venue.

"We kind of think that the [Kanab] area office has a little more expertise. They're a little bit more grazing-friendly," said Tyce Palmer, resource coordinator for the Upper Sevier Conservation District, a state-sponsored agency that aids ranchers around the monument.

"The monument is mainly based on science," he said Thursday, "or they say they're science-based."

Hatch added his voice in a May 8 letter to since-retired BLM Director Bob Abbey. "When it comes to grazing on public lands, I am committed to doing all I can to ensure that ranchers' interests are protected at every step of the decision-making process," Hatch wrote. "I fully support Garfield County's request to have the responsibility for the grazing [study] for the monument transferred to the BLM Kanab Field Office."

The request offends environmentalists monitoring the canyon grasslands and streams.

"It's inappropriate for me, as a member of the public, to call BLM and ask them to make staffing assignments," Wild Utah Project Executive Director Jim Catlin said. "The same is true with an elected official."

Turns out the BLM's answer to Hatch and the others is a polite and qualified "no." Juan Palma, the agency's director for Utah, said he wrote a letter to Hatch saying the monument staff would retain authority but would hire a third party to conduct the study. He also made clear that the ultimate signing authority for a grazing plan would rest with him — or perhaps his successor as state director — and not with the monument.

"I just felt that it's important that the monument be involved and be part of the process," Palma said Friday.

As part of the interagency National Conservation Lands system — itself a Clinton-era holdover that irks Utah's congressional delegation — the Grand Staircase-Escalante has a mandate to preserve geologic wonders, archaeological and paleontological relics and other resources that sometimes get lesser attention on other BLM lands. But the monument also has a charter protecting pre-1996 human activities including ranching, and Palma made clear that whatever happens, cows will stay on the land.

"There's no intention whatsoever not to have grazing," Palma said.

But the monument, he added, does need a grazing plan to ensure the native grasslands are healthy. The original plan left it out because of the controversy, he said, and ever since the monument's successive managers have "kicked the can down the road."

Monument manager Rene Berkhoudt restarted the process with a situation assessment by the National Riparian Service, a joint effort of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service that seeks collaboration in managing watersheds. That team found residual strife among ranchers and conservation groups, and Palma canceled community meetings scheduled for last month.

He said the BLM needs time to focus its message and build trust. The planning will resume with an environmental study next summer.

Hatch's office said Friday that the senator had not yet received Palma's response, but that he would track the issue and be sure ranchers "are sufficiently heard."

"Senator Hatch," spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said, "always wants to ensure that, when it comes to federal land policy, that the interests of the local community are not being trumped by environmentalists who have consistently shown an agenda of shutting off access to these lands."

Catlin said that's not his agenda, though his group has monitored the range and found the BLM's grazing management lacking. A new plan should offer more rest for grasses on many of the monument's 88 grazing allotments, he said. Indian rice grass, which should predominate, is all but gone. Little grows under the junipers and pinyon pines that dot thousands of acres. Cryptobiotic crusts that hold down the desert between sagebrush plants are trampled.

When the BLM first tried to write a grazing plan, the monument's scientists assessed range conditions and declared 21 of the allotments out of compliance with agency standards.

Laura Welp, a monument botanist who left in disgust over the impasse in 2005, said that figure was negotiated with pro-ranching grazing specialists and probably should have been higher.

Political pressure derailed the assessment and the plan it was meant to create, said Welp, who now monitors the range for the grazing-watchdog group Western Watersheds Project.

"It was way better than any rangeland health assessment that had ever been done on any BLM [land] ever before."

Welp said she has little confidence Palma's renewed effort will steer clear of politics and devise a plan that protects the land.

bloomis@sltrib.com