Flashback: How one green group is buying up grazing allotments to keep cattle off the range

Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of RANGE magazine

Hostile Takeover: How Grand Canyon Trust is driving real ranchers off the range

By Marjorie Haun

Giving credit where credit is due, you have to hand it to the “lock-up-the-lands” environmentalists. They never seem to run out of creative ideas when it comes to fulfilling their mission to drive ranchers off federally-controlled lands in the west. Meet the Grand Canyon Trust (GCT), a multi-million-dollar, anti-grazing, anti-multiple use environmentalist organization operating in northern Arizona and southern Utah.

Despite the fact that GCT holds a base property called North Rim Ranch, their interest in grazing is not to promote healthy grazing practices on federally-controlled lands—something already practiced by a majority of actual ranchers with grazing permits—but to acquire, retire, and destroy the grazing capacity of allotments so they become entirely inaccessible to ranchers.

Big Bowns Bench Allotment

Grand Staircase-Escalante Allotments

Exploiting the onerous restrictions placed on grazing by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) following President Clinton’s unilateral creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSE) in the late 1990’s, GCT offered to buyout permits from aggrieved ranchers, some of whom took the bait. GCT took control of four sizeable allotments; Big Bowns Bench, Clark Bench, Willow Gulch, and Last Chance.

When GCT first acquired Big Bowns Bench they ripped out a pipeline which carried water from a natural spring in one of its many canyons. They then dismantled the line, making it unusable, which is in violation of federal grazing regulations. In another of Big Bowns Bench’s steep canyons, a pumping station was washed out by a flood. That water source went unrepaired as well, and GCT has neglected to perform other legally-mandated improvements.

One of several watering improvements neglected or destroyed by Grand Canyon Trust

The BLM has been fully aware of GCT’s plan to systematically dismantle mandated infrastructure on the allotments and nullify precious grazing rights. Shortly after distressed ranchers sold out, in April 2002, GCT’s Secretary, Bill Hedden, wrote a letter to BLM offering to relinquish grazing privileges, AUM’s and all interests in range improvements on the allotments. In the same letter, Hedden made GCT’s intention to retire them very clear, stating: “If BLM decides not to close the allotments, we do not get the grazing retirement we sought…”

The group’s distaste for cattle is underscored on its website, which states, “livestock leave big impacts on the land. They trample native species, make a mess of springs and streams, and disrupt cultural sites…” And in a 2017 brochure produced by GCT about their “work” with Big Bowns Bench, they reiterated: “Grand Canyon Trust believes that continuing livestock-free status on this remote, waterless plateau, provides greater value for the health of Big Bowns Bench…”

Grazing regulations stipulate that allotments cannot be kept in non-use for more than three successive years, and that within a ten-year period the allotments must be grazed by livestock for at least six of those years. Nevertheless, GCT has kept the allotments in an illegal state of non-use for almost eighteen years.

Drew Coombs on his cattle ranch. Photo by Drew Coombs

Drew Coombs, a cattle rancher from Boulder, Utah is the victim in a years’ long battle with the BLM over the allotments kept in non-use by GCT. Drew has applied for some of the permits in order to put them to proper and beneficial use, but it appears that GCT may be wagging the BLM’s dog.

Early in 2017, the BLM submitted a motion to dismiss Drew’s appeal of the agency’s denial of his applications for permits within the GSE. Drew appealed, yet BLM rejected his appeal on a technicality. After a tortured series of legal actions, in October of 2017, Drew wrote a letter implicating GCT in the BLM’s refusal to consider his applications. His letter details, in plain language, what he believes is an unjust process. Highlights from his letter bring to light the subterfuge:

The GCT partnered with the BLM to retire or close grazing on the allotments where they purchased grazing preference from ranchers…The closures and grazing reductions affected at least six ranching families, causing them to leave the area.

A comparison of permitted livestock grazing levels from pre-monument designation to post monument designation may not show a significant change, because the BLM is allowing the Grand Canyon Trust to hold grazing permits without grazing livestock.

The grazing closures and reductions did not completely satisfy the GCT, as they wanted BLM to close grazing on all allotments where they purchased grazing preference…

The BLM has allowed GCT to hold grazing preference and a term grazing permit for 18 or more years on several allotments when they have not or do not intend to graze livestock on the allotments where they are permitted to do graze. This is direct violation of grazing regulations. Several ranchers have requested to utilize these allotments over the past 18 years, but BLM continues to deny requests…

Thumb on the Scale

Drew Coombs began to show interest in the allotments as early as 2014, when there was no active grazing on them. As other ranchers began to apply for the permits, it appears GCT hedged its bets and subleased two of the permits to real ranchers. Actual Use documents show that during the 2018 season Mark Nelson subleased Willow Gulch and kept 42 cows on the allotment, and Dell LeFevre kept a small number of cattle on Last Chance.

On November 5, 2018, GCT’s Conservation Director, Travis Bruner, sent a letter to Harry Barber, the then-acting director of the GSE. Using drought, “climatic conditions” and the pending updated monument management plan as justification, Bruner asked BLM to grant “conservation-protection non-use” status and again suspend grazing on the allotments. The letter infers that potential grazing would cause “unnecessary injury” to the allotments.

The BLM responded to GCT in a letter dated May 1, 2019, in which it granted the “conservation-protection non-use” they desired and provided grazing applications for the four allotments. The applications voided existing AUMs (Animal Unit Months), putting the number of livestock at zero. Then BLM ironically encouraged GCT to put the permits to beneficial use, and concluded by saying, “We look forward to working with you as we strive to implement our multiple-use mandate.”

BLM Information Officer, David Hercher, responded to my inquiry about the current status of the allotments by saying, “Three of the four allotments on which the Trust currently holds grazing permits are achieving rangeland health standards and are being actively grazed. Typically, permits are renewed on a ten-year basis. The current permit was last renewed in 2017.” If this is the case, one has to ask, why was Drew Coombs rebuffed by the BLM at roughly the same time the GCT’s permits were due to expire (and should have been pulled)?

Another BLM employee who has done extensive research on the allotments, Big Bowns Bend in particular, said this of the Hercher’s response: “This is just a generic response they typically use to avoid the truth or get into details. The allotment not meeting rangeland health standards is the Last Chance Allotment. The Last Chance Allotment is utilized by Dell LeFevre, so the health standards must not be bad enough to completely close the allotment. Since GCT has violated the terms and conditions of their permit why hasn’t BLM taken any action? Especially when there has been great interest by many permittees in the area to use the allotments.”

It appears that GCT is at present keeping “show cattle” on some allotments to satisfy the BLM which is being pressured by local ranchers. Although BLM may be forcing GCT to graze allotments or lose them, it’s absurd to believe the group has had a sudden change of heart about cattle grazing on federally-controlled land. But how GCT has kept cows off the allotments for nearly two decades while keeping possession of the permits is a question that weighs heavily on many ranchers’ minds.

The “Comanagement” Lie

“Comanagement” of federally-controlled lands and resources; the delegation of responsibilities from agency bureaucracies to environmentalist groups and tribal entities, is one of the narratives GCT uses to soften public sentiment about locking up lands from economic development, other than recreation. When soliciting support from the Native tribes of southern Utah for the creation of Bears Ears National Monument, GCT claimed that lands and resources gobbled up in a new federal designation would remain accessible because the tribes would be granted comanagement rights to the new tourist attraction. This was a lie. There exists no language in the Antiquities Act, nor any federal statute for that matter, that allows for comanagement of anything by any party. Furthermore, in a “Sustainable Grazing Alternative” presented to the BLM in 2015, GCT hustles the idea of co-managing these allotments with the agency as an alternative to traditional cattle grazing.

In 2013, with the potential designation of a new national monument making a buzz, GCT got involved with the Babylon Allotment in southeastern Utah, in the region where Obama created the Bears Ears in 2016. The Ute Mountain Tribal Council controlled the Babylon permit for a number of years, yet failed to properly manage it. In January 2010, a letter from the Manti-La Sal National Forest (MLSNF) to the Ute Mountain Tribe warned that their non-compliance was becoming problematic. Fence maintenance and repair had gone undone, and water infrastructure, roads, etc., had been neglected. The letter made it clear that the allotment was left in “poor condition,” so much so that a “substantial amount of time” would be needed to perform the necessary improvements to bring it to “an acceptable standard.” The letter also states that the MLSNF sent a non-compliance warning to the tribe in January of 2009, to which, it appears, the tribe failed to respond.

In June of 2011, Dave Erley of GCT, submitted an Allotment Report to the MLSNF detailing broken boundary fences, trespassing cattle and spoiled water sources within the Babylon. Possibly seeing an opportunity, in 2013 GCT signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Ute Tribe and the Forest Service to implement a comanagement plan for the allotment. The MOU specified actions each party would need to perform to remain compliant with federal grazing permit rules and regulations. GCT’s responsibilities included repairing damaged fences, identifying restoration projects, providing active communication for monitoring the allotment, and organizing annual meetings with the Ute Mountain Tribe and MLSNF to discuss conservation progress.

Yet, even with the MOU in place, the Babylon seems to have been forsaken. There are no records of repairs, improvements, conservation projects, meaningful monitoring, nor coordinated meetings.

A July 2018 internal memo from Michael Diem, the then-District Ranger, to Tina Marian, the Forest Service Range Conservationist, reveals their bewilderment at the lack of proper management of the Babylon and the absence of grazing stock. Being at an “impasse” with the Ute Tribe, the rangers mulled their options about how to enforce compliance to the permit’s conditions. The memo states, in part:

…I believe the next step that we need to take is to develop a letter that we will eventually send to the tribe regarding the impasse that we seem to be in…I believe we need to set a timetable for them to respond with a definitive plan for stocking and completing of improvements…

Michael Diem suggested using language mirroring the MOU in the proposed letter in order to hold GCT to its obligations, and to reiterate to all the parties that the permit is meant for livestock. The memo continues:

At some point, we will need to inform Grand Canyon Trust, as they are a party to the agreement also. I know GCT has expressed greater interest in the Gooseberry allotment previously and does not seem to want involvement in Babylon to the same degree. That might have changed since a portion of this allotment is within the Bears Ears National Monument.

The MLSNF was clearly aware of the activist bent of GCT and the fact they had no intention to graze on the Babylon Allotment, yet there is no evidence that the Forest Service has done anything except consider corrective measures. The Babylon Allotment is a living case study proving that GCT’s doctrine of comanagement is nothing more than a ruse employed to further its vision of centralized federal control of all western lands and resources.

Double Standard

Unlike cattle and sheep ranchers who hold grazing permits, which must be diligently maintained and vigorously defended when the time comes to renew them, it appears GCT has been allowed to break the law for nearly two decades with no consequences. Real ranchers who abuse or neglect their permits lose them, with little or no mercy on the part of agencies.

The Forest Service, in the case of the Babylon, suffers bureaucratic paralysis while GCT and the Ute Mountain Tribe snub the law, leaving important grazing lands in a state of decay. BLM, in the case of GSE, continues to renew GCT’s permits, when the agency knows the endgame of GCT is to retire the allotments forever.

The victims of this game are myriad. First are local economies. In 2015, Garfield County, where most of the GSE allotments are located, declared a state of economic emergency after losing its industrial base and nearly two-thirds of its public-school students. The creation of GSE crushed the mining and oil and gas industries, but the impact of the shrinking ranching sector market is undeniable. Feed stores, veterinarians, transportation companies, mechanics, service stations, tack and gear stores, and countless other ranching-related businesses were hurt, and continue to be hurt by GCT’s intentional non-use of vast grazing lands. The second victims are real ranchers whose rights and herds are being ransacked by dishonest activists, and bureaucratic ineptitude.

As Drew Coombs explains, “I made application to use GCT controlled allotments in 2014.  BLM used every tactic imaginable to avoid making a decision on my application. I’m not the only one they did this to, they do it to avoid issuing a formal decision that can be appealed. It’s easier to ignore the applicant and pretend it never happened.” He continues, “It’s as if the BLM is a subsidiary to GCT. BLM is eager to tell ranchers what they can and can’t do, but when it comes to GCT, BLM are humble servants.  I don’t understand what kind of power GCT can have over this agency, but they have it.”

Drew Coombs

Drew’s troubles are shared by ranchers and others involved with range management where GCT plies its deceptive trade. But GCT is not alone. In Montana, the American Prairie Reserve is supplanting cattle with “wild” bison by buying out ranchers and grazing rights across the state. Many private ranches purchased by the Nature Conservancy are then sold to the federal government under the condition that they be managed for “protection.”

The “benign” neglect of grazing allotments does no good for the environment nor wildlife. Noxious weeds, invasive species, spoiled springs, derelict fences, erosion and blight follow when cattle no longer graze through and ranchers no longer manage. If federal agencies don’t correct these wrongs, GCT’s legacy will not be an improved environment, but rather a collection of grazing allotments left barren, with water resources, fences and the livelihoods of real ranchers left in ruins.

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