Battle over cattle: Controversy at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

KANAB – A longtime battle rages between ranchers and conservationists over cattle grazing at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – a national monument signed into being by President Bill Clinton in 1996 that covers land in Garfield and Kane counties.

Though openly at odds, environmental proponents and ranchers seem to unwittingly see eye to eye in some key respects.

“I think they agree more than they think they do,” Bureau of Land Management employee Larry Crutchfield, public affairs officer for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, said.

At the heart of the matter, both ranchers and environmentalists say they want wise stewardship at the monument, as well as preservation and restoration of the land’s health. They also desire collaborative decision making when it comes to changes at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

But the similarities end when it comes to assigning blame for degraded conditions at the monument and what should be done to fix problems there.

A rancher’s lament

Hal Hamblin, of Kanab, is a fifth-generation rancher. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one of the locations where he grazes his cattle.

Hal Hamblin enters a corral where he keeps cows in Kanab, Utah, April 14, 2015 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News
Hal Hamblin enters a corral where he keeps cows in Kanab, Utah, April 14, 2015 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News

Hamblin said restrictions associated with a national monument designation have made it very difficult for ranchers to do business effectively and have tied ranchers’ hands when it comes to taking care of their grazing allotments.

“The rules and regulations that they’ve put in are destroying the land,” he said.

Because of monument restrictions, Hamblin said, ranchers can’t extend or move water lines within their allotments to bring water to the traveling cattle; they can’t fence riparian areas; they can’t bring in foreign material, such as rock or gravel, to slow down erosion in washes and they can’t take other erosion controlling measures; they can’t cut cedar posts to repair fencing; they can’t maintain roads; they can’t bring in mechanical equipment in many areas; and they can’t implement brush control measures.

Hamblin said pinion and juniper suck up water and cause springs to run dry. Whenever you clear pinion and juniper, you bring water back, he said. But restrictions at the monument don’t allow ranchers to do that.

Some of Hal Hamblin's cows, Kanab, Utah, April 14, 2015 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News
Some of Hal Hamblin’s cows, Kanab, Utah, April 14, 2015 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News

Hamblin said land degradation at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument began after the presidential land grab in the 1990s.

“It would be policies that they (the federal government) set up when Bill Clinton designated the monument,” Hamblin said, “and, basically, we were told in his proclamation that … nothing would change on the monument pertaining to grazing, and that just isn’t true, because we can’t take care of the land. We can’t control the brush and the pinion and juniper, and we can’t even control the erosion, which is terrible out there.”

Hamblin said many ranchers also can’t run their permitted numbers of cattle due to monument restrictions. Because of the restrictions, he said, the number of cattle he used to graze on the monument has been reduced by half – not because his permitted numbers have changed, but because there isn’t infrastructure to support the permitted number of cows.

Some of Hal Hamblin's cows, Kanab, Utah, April 14, 2015 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News
Some of Hal Hamblin’s cows, Kanab, Utah, April 14, 2015 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News

“The cattlemen are not going to destroy what is there or put the cattle out where there is no feed,” he said.

Hamblin said practices need to be put in place at the monument to increase foliage or restore the foliage that used to be there.

An environmental point of view

While most environmental champions would agree foliage and other natural rangeland assets should be restored and protected, environmentalists point to ranchers and their cattle, in large part, as culprits that have destroyed the land.

“There’s been a lack of stewardship on their part,” said Jim Catlin, a volunteer with the Sierra Club and director emeritus of the Wild Utah Project.

Catlin said ranchers have become a minority in Kane and Garfield counties and that ranching, though important in the local communities, has a very small economic impact – yet legislation is being sponsored on behalf of this small group to the detriment of the monument.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, date not specified | Public domain photo, St. George News
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, date not specified | Public domain photo, St. George News

“You can always have a sign that says ‘monument’ on it and a dustbowl behind it,” Catlin said.

Catlin said he is concerned a recent bill, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Orrin Hatch and introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Chris Stewart, would allow, if passed, permanent cattle grazing at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“The biggest concern in the monument is that this bill would mandate a certain level of grazing forever,” Catlin said. “That means that reasonable management that would require changing the level of grazing would no longer be possible.”

Catlin said he is also concerned the passing of such legislation would undo yearslong cooperative efforts between community leaders, the BLM and scientists to remedy environmental issues at the monument. Another fear is that the restoration work of nonprofit groups and other entities will be reversed. One group has been raising about a million dollars each year to remove Russian olive trees – which choke out other vegetation, he said – from the Escalante River.

Catlin said the legislation would still allow groups to monitor land health at the monument – but they couldn’t do anything about problems they find.

In addition to removing destructive, invasive species, Catlin said part of the restoration work at the monument needs to include resting the land.

“Part of that recovery requires rest – more than a decade of rest,” he said.

Cows are particularly destructive in the monument, he said, destroying plants, grazeable forage, herbaceous groundcover and habitat, as well as damaging topsoil.

“The soil does not develop a protective patina because it’s always being worked by little hooves,” Catlin said.

“If you continue the grazing program as it now is, these problems will not be fixed,” he added.

Controversy over changes at the monument

Crutchfield, of the BLM, said the top priority when it comes to cattle grazing at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is not pleasing one party over another but working together to find a solution that is best for the land.

That’s what’s going to drive the number of cattle or recreationists or wildlife that are going to be out on the ground,” he said. “It’s the land health.”

The BLM is currently in the midst of an amendment process for the monument’s management plan to specifically address cattle grazing. Based on comments received from the public during scoping meetings and workshops held in 2013 and 2014, the BLM has created five preliminary amendment alternatives.

It is anticipated a final decision will be made by fall 2016.

As the amendment process goes forward, both ranchers and environmental proponents have been concerned about what potential changes will mean at the monument.

“This is a very emotional topic for people on all sides of the issue,” Crutchfield said. “It involves people’s livelihoods on all sides of the issue. It involves people’s heritage.”

Bureau of Land Management office in Kanab, Utah, April 14, 2015 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News
Bureau of Land Management office in Kanab, Utah, April 14, 2015 | Photo by Cami Cox Jim, St. George News

Since late 2013, the BLM has hosted scoping meetings and gathered public input regarding the forthcoming amendment to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Management Plan.

The recent bill, introduced by Hatch and Stewart, seeks to improve rangeland conditions and restore grazing levels within the monument, reactive to the belief that the BLM’s amendment plan will eliminate grazing there entirely.

In a recent press release, Hatch said:

… the BLM is now considering an amendment that would eliminate grazing on the Monument altogether. Grazing and livestock are absolutely vital to Kane and Garfield Counties, and such a drastic decision could wreak havoc on the local economy.

But Crutchfield said no one at the top of the BLM chain is pressuring the local office to eliminate or even curtail grazing at the monument.

“No one has ever said in any meeting I’ve ever sat in that our job is to eliminate or even reduce grazing in this process,” he said. “Our job is to seek sustained use through improved land health. How do we do that? That’s what this process is all about.”

According to the BLM website, existing plans providing land use decisions for livestock grazing were completed in 1981 and “are outdated.” A monument management plan that went into effect in 2000 did not address most of the previous livestock grazing decisions.

The management plan essentially did not include grazing,” Richard Madril, assistant monument manager for resources, said.

“It involved the general aspect that grazing is going to continue and that at a later time we would do this NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) planning project to incorporate grazing management into the entire monument,” he added.

Crutchfield said not having the plan updated could open the BLM to potential legal issues in the future. So, the BLM embarked on a process to create an amendment to the monument’s management plan as well as an accompanying environmental impact statement.

As the process has commenced, Crutchfield said, the BLM has done some things differently than would typically happen, allowing input to be given at early stages of the process that would not normally involve the public. This has been confusing for some members of the public, he said, thinking what they were seeing was a finished product and a done deal rather than just one step in a lengthy and complex process.

“This EIS planning effort has allowed the public more opportunities to provide us input than many BLM planning efforts, because it is controversial,” Crutchfield said. “It is complex, and we want to get it right.”

Five alternatives

The BLM presented five draft preliminary alternatives to the public for comment, which are currently being revised to reflect public input before actual analysis of the alternatives begins. The five draft preliminary alternatives, as published on the  BLM website – one of which, if selected, would eliminate grazing altogether and another of which would keep cattle grazing management exactly as it is – are:
  1. No Action – Continue current management direction. Livestock grazing continues at current permitted levels. Areas currently closed remain unavailable to grazing.
  2. Discontinue livestock grazing on GSENM and Glen Canyon NRA with 2-year notification. Permittees provided compensation for improvements. Areas in Kanab and Arizona Strip Field Offices remain available for grazing.
  3. Emphasize restoring native species diversity. Livestock grazing managed to ensure little to no impact to resources. Changes in grazing systems (e.g. season of use, intensity, rotation) considered before implementing range improvements. Areas currently unavailable and unallotted remain unavailable. Additional areas identified as unavailable for grazing.
  4. Recognize historic and cultural importance of the livestock industry while emphasizing healthy landscapes to support multiple uses. It is designed to be consistent with State and County ordinances and plans. Livestock management actively promotes rangeland health through adaptive management principles and innovative livestock practices. Some suspended AUMS and unavailable allotments returned to active use as conditions improve.
  5. Emphasize sustainable use through livestock management designed to ensure rangeland health standards are achieved and land health is improved. Most areas unavailable remain unavailable; two areas would be made available. Some unalloted areas would be made unavailable.

“The thing is to come up with a full range of alternatives that we can analyze and truly look at, so that we can say to any group of people, the public, ‘We looked at this full range of alternatives and this was the best that’s going to gain us sustained use of the land through improved land health,’” Crutchfield said, “and that’s the goal of what we want to accomplish.”


At the current stage of the BLM’s amendment process, public comment is closed. However, Crutchfield encouraged those with input to submit their comments and concerns and take the opportunity to express their perspectives.

“Send it in,” he said. “It might not get included at that point in the initial analysis. Send it in anyway. … We want the comment.”

“Somewhere in the process it will be looked at,” Madril said.

Crutchfield said the general public often feels their comments aren’t listened to, but he said every single comment received in this process will be read, considered and addressed.

He said the end result will be volumes deep, and those who commented will either see their comment or a similar one and how it was addressed.

“If we take it, why we took it,” Crutchfield said, “and if we don’t, why we didn’t. And we explain it.”

Once the alternatives are analyzed and the draft of the amendment plan and environmental impact statement is published and released, the public will get yet another opportunity to comment, he said.

“We want as much transparency and as much public involvement as possible,” Crutchfield said.

Submit comments by email; by fax to 435-644-1250; or by mail to: Bureau of Land Management Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 669 S. Hwy. 89-A, Kanab, Utah 84741.


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  • native born new mexican July 6, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    This is an informative well researched article about an important subject. Fair multiple use is the key to this situation. Also following the advise in the article Bryan just posted about walking in the other guys shoes and not trying to demean them or make them the villain. Name calling and marginalizing others is the easy road but not the right road. I am immediately turned away from any ideas put forth by people who try to do that because I see them as immoral and self centered. They only want what they want and they are willing to destroy others to get their way. Mr. Hamblin makes good points and good sense. He and his fellow ranchers have a right to be heard respectfully and treated reasonably and fairly. Cattle and cattle ranchers have a place on the land. Well managed range land where cattle graze and ranchers make a living is not a detriment or destructive. Extremism wants only it’s way and can not be reasoned with- environmentalists. Always remember I and the rancher in this article are talking about healthy well managed range land. Extremist views will hurt everyone and cause further hard feelings because of the win at any cost( especially if it costs the other guy his way of life.) mentality that shows no respect for any one but the persons trying to get their own way. The more insults, one sided arguments and extreme demands are put forth, the more I know the person spewing those things is character challenged and that their views are coming from a very selfish place and show no reason or balance.

    • fun bag July 6, 2015 at 11:42 pm

      seems to me then, that you need to hold yourself to your own standards. you sound like a hypocrite…

  • anybody home July 6, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    I don’t get the idea that you’re willing to take a single step in the shoes of the environmentalists – you call them “extremists.” Doesn’t sound like you’re the least bit open to hearing the other side. Or even the BLM side. At least be honest.

    • native born new mexican July 6, 2015 at 9:02 pm

      When I use the word extremists i mean those people who want things all their way no matter what. We all understand that a healthy range environment is important but why does that in environmentalists minds equal no cattle and no ranchers. There is no middle ground with them. The ranchers are totally on board with the idea of a healthy range, good grass etc. but they get no credit for that. They are demeaned, insulted and made out to be the bad guy destroyers which they are not. The ranchers are not doing this to the environmentalists. The absolute demands and ugly names are coming from only one side. I pointed my finger at who that is. When I was a young person growing up I learned that I was expected to play fair with others. I was not allowed to grab all the toys for myself. Environmentalists certainly expect that behavior from others towards them but they exempt themselves from living by the same rules. I have no respect for that kind of immature selfishness. They need to go to their room and stay there until they can come out and play nice.

      • fun bag July 6, 2015 at 11:43 pm

        i prefer the term conservationist, but i think that is an equally dirty word in your mind…

    • mesaman July 6, 2015 at 9:13 pm

      How very hypocritical of you. Nobody Home. Environmentalist are extremists and that is an honest description. To ignore this is to hide behind your own trepidations.

      • anybody home July 6, 2015 at 10:22 pm

        My trepidations? Trepidation: A state of alarm or dread; apprehension. Don’t think that’s the word you mean and I’m not sure what you mean. I am not alarmed or feeling dread or apprehension. Want to clarify that?

        There are extremists on both sides – cattle ranchers and environmentalists. But painting all environmentalists as extremists is just plain wrong. In fact, I know at least one cattle rancher who identifies himself as an environmentalist. And I’ll bet there are many more, but maybe not in Utah.

        • mesaman July 7, 2015 at 7:29 am

          Wrong Nobody, that’s precisely what I meant, and I didn’t have to look it up in the dictionary. The paint conservationists throw on environmental extremist has been setting for decades now. Ever hear of Earth First and the protests du jour of the past. No. You are at odds with the “church of sustainability”, the newest of the vogue, nay vague solutions to a real or contrived dilemma. Your prose suggests the alarm and your defensiveness verifies it.

          • anybody home July 7, 2015 at 9:59 am

            Environmentalists and environmental extremists are not the same any more than conservationists and conservation extremists would be. “Extremist” is an adjective added to something to make a political statement describing extreme behavior. I’m very familiar with Earth First and the damage they did in the northwest. I’m not an extremist and I’m neither alarmed or defensive. I just think it’s better when people use the English language without skewing it. And your derogatory skewing of my username is just plain insulting. Grow up.

      • fun bag July 6, 2015 at 11:45 pm

        oooh mesa-tard learned some big new words “tredpidations” wowow!!!

        • mesaman July 7, 2015 at 7:30 am

          You had to look it up too, scumbag. This is what you get when you drop out of school after the fifth grade. But you’ve muddled very well for a maroon.

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