Garfield County meeting addresses concerns over BLM plan to manage Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Oct 27, 2023, 6:44 PM | Updated: 7:27 pm

TROPIC, Garfield County — It was another day of working cattle at the Sweetwater Ranch in Garfield County, much like the thousands of days before. But lately, things just feel different.

It’s enough to worry even a rugged cowboy like Derrel Spencer.

“I am scared. I don’t know. We could lose everything. We stand right now to lose up to 4000 AUMs. You’re talking $1.2 million for what we would lose,” Spencer said.

An AUM is an Animal Unit Month, a measurement used to determine sustainable grazing on pastureland. Spencer runs his cattle on public land in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument using grazing rights he paid for.

However, there’s a chance his grazing rights, and those of other ranchers, could be dramatically reduced if a new resource management plan is put into place by the Bureau of Land Management.

“We are not welfare ranchers. We buy these grazing rights to turn out on these public lands,” Spencer said. “You wonder why these ranchers are so passionate and willing to fight over these? Because everything they have, every bit of money, every inheritance, everything they have, every savings is tied up in these. You take that away and it kills us. Wipes us out.”

Spencer’s concerns are shared by many ranchers in the area.

Garfield County rancher (KSL TV)

It’s part of why Garfield County leaders decided to hold a meeting with residents at Bryce Valley High School in Tropic on Wednesday evening.

The Bureau of Land Management has held several public meetings discussing the resource management plan, but Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock feels residents still have a lot of concerns that aren’t being addressed.

“I went to the BLM public information meeting in Escalante, and there were a lot of locals there asking questions, and the BLM just wasn’t answering them. It was more of a science fair with displays set up and cards set up and you have to come and scan a QR code. We just wanted to have a meeting where anybody with a question can get an answer,” Pollock said. “We are the forgotten voices and it is time that we are heard.”

More than 400 people packed the auditorium. A panel of Garfield County leaders explained the four different resource management plans the BLM has come up with. The impacts of each plan were discussed.

Option A would basically continue to manage the land the way it has been.

Option D, the “nuclear plan,” as Commissioner Pollock put it, would severely restrict not just grazing rights and pastureland, but there would be restrictions on access, recreation, target shooting, and even wood gathering.

“It bothers me on a lot of levels,” said Garfield County resident Clint Brinkerhoff. “I like to get out and gather wood for the local widows. We don’t have natural gas here and propane is the only other way for these people to heat their homes and the price of that is pretty high.”

Garfield County leaders explain the BLM’s proposed resource management plans (KSL TV)

A new resource management plan for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is necessary after President Biden’s proclamation to restore the monument to its original size after President Trump reduced it.

“With that new proclamation, the BLM was directed to complete a single resource management plan for all BLM lands within Grand Staircase,” said Ade Nelson, who is the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument Manager for the Bureau of Land Management.

Currently, the BLM’s preferred option for the new plan is Option C, which would use a “zonal management approach to selectively allow for discretionary uses in appropriate settings.

Four management zones similar to those used in the 2000 GSENM Management Plan would be established: the front country zone, passage zone, outback zone, and primitive zone.

Each of these management zones would provide certain management directions to guide resource protection and allowable uses; the intensity of resource protection and use would vary depending on the zone.

Under Alternative C, the designation of management zones would serve primarily as a tool for managing visitation and allowable uses while also protecting GSENM objects.” However, ranchers say Option C would still ruin their livelihood.

“It needs to go to local control. It needs local elected officials that we elect that are calling the shots,” Spencer said. “Instead, we are getting governed by people 2000 miles away that have no idea and that don’t understand this. And probably don’t really care to.”

Option C will also restrict recreation and access more than what is currently allowed.

“When we have so much public land in our counties, anything they do to the public lands greatly affects us,” said Wade Heaton.

Heaton is a Kane County Commissioner whose county is also a large part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. He says the communities around the monument rely on it for tourism.

Heaton is concerned if access is restricted, fewer people will visit.

“Those restrictions would absolutely devastate those local communities,” he said. “And it’s not just our local communities, a lot of Northern Utah along the Wasatch Front comes to our area to recreate. This is going to affect all public land users. It could literally devastate our area.”

A participant asks a question at the Garfield County meeting (KSL TV)

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and his legal team were also at the meeting. He told the crowd he is promising to file lawsuits against the federal government for any plan that restricts access.

“This is about an entire community and their ability to sustain themselves. It’s about their livelihoods, it’s about their culture, their tradition, and their entire history,” Reyes said.

It’s also why Reyes and county leaders are asking people to leave comments on the official BLM site telling how any restrictions would affect them.

The open comment period lasts until Nov. 9. The BLM is required to take those comments into consideration when drafting the final plan.

Reyes says if the final plan ignores the comments by not addressing them, he would have legal wiggle room to argue the BLM didn’t do what was required.

The BLM is also asking for public comment, saying no final decision has been made yet.

“It very much is still open for refinement based on the feedback that we receive,” Nelson said. “What we really like to focus on is the comments which really identify and hone in on a specific issue that the BLM may not have included. Or if there is additional information, education, research, that can help inform.”

For Spencer, he’s just hoping it’s not too late.

“We just want this lifestyle to continue. It’s not easy. We’re not getting rich,” he said. “We are just trying to survive and we are feeding America doing it.”

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Garfield County meeting addresses concerns over BLM plan to manage Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument