Bill would designate Escalante 'grazing zone'
Politics • Monument officials not invited to legislative discussion.
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The House on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill to designate a 'grazing zone' over and around southern Utah's Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

HB382 is needed because grazing in the 1.9 million-acre monument is "severely threatened," according to Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, even though this historic use was specifically authorized under the federal monument's 1996 proclamation. The designation is "an opportunity to identify grazing as a very important use and priority use within the Escalante region in Garfield and Kane County," Noel, himself a cattleman, told colleagues Tuesday.

Noel's claims were backed by lobbyists who alleged that the Bureau of Land Management is not sufficiently accommodating livestock, which forms the backbone of Utah's $16 billion agriculture industry.

"The counties have witnessed time after time where managers have lost their moorings and use the presence of the monument to minimize and take away grazing," Mark Ward, policy director of the Utah Association of Counties, told a House committee on Monday.

But monument manager Rene Berkhoudt, whose staff was not informed of the legislation and was not invited to testify, said he has no idea what these critics are talking about. BLM has taken no steps to reduce grazing allotments, although actual grazing inside the monument has fluctuated over the years in response to changing conditions, said Berkhoudt, reached by phone at his Kanab headquarters.

The monument is home to 82 allotments supporting 102 permittees who used a total 11,000 animal unit months, or AUMs, last year. Some environmental groups do lobby to evict livestock from public land because of overgrazing's toll on taxpayers and a fragile desert ecology. The $1.35 the feds charge per AUM falls far short of covering the grazing program's costs, leading some groups to ridicule public-lands grazing as "welfare ranching."

These groups expect to call for reductions in monument grazing when BLM initiates its long-overdue programmatic review of grazing's environmental impacts this year.

The proposed grazing zone encircles the monument and covers pieces of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Dixie National Forest.

bmaffly@sltrib.com