ST. GEORGE — Ranchers questioned the credibility of the government's commitment to protect their grazing rights at a packed Utah Farm Bureau Federation rangeland conference held here this week.
Several of the 200 or so ranchers in attendance Monday challenged top U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials on their position regarding preservation of grazing rights.
In particular, ranchers were concerned with the recent purchase of grazing allotments by the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group with offices in Arizona and Utah.
"If Kane and Garfield counties provide the BLM evidence that the Grand Canyon Trust purchased these grazing allotments to stop grazing, would the BLM consider stopping the trust?" asked one rancher from Kane County. Another read a letter from Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to the trust stating her support of their efforts to retire grazing allotments in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Sally Wisely, director of the BLM's Utah office, told ranchers the trust purchased some grazing rights through private transaction and then made the retirement request.
"We are doing an assessment and are looking at alternatives," Wisely said. "No final decision has been made yet."
Kathleen Clarke, new BLM director and former executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said she welcomed cooperative ventures between environmental groups such as the trust and The Nature Conservancy.
"Grazing is part of the BLM's past, and it is part of its future," Clarke assured her audience. "But we need to find common ground and mutual respect with environmental interests. The challenge is enormous and the contention is enormous."
Jim McMahon, director of the trust's St. George office, said Norton's letter was used in fund-raising efforts which have been less successful since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and should not concern ranchers.
"They have bigger things to worry about than us," he said. "like whether BLM land is for sale, or the drop in the international market."
Clarke said she is committed to seeking solutions and forming new partnerships.
"We want to find a way to make peace with the challenges facing us," she said.
Divisive issues such as polarity between public land use managers and multiple layers of environmental laws and mandates continue to stall progress, Clarke said.
"When I began this job I was told to expect being sued every day, and I wasn't disappointed. We have 23 active lawsuits in Utah and 80 percent of the grazing allotment decisions are being challenged in court."
Money designated by Congress to the BLM for land use is being diverted to a legal defense fund, she said.
Wisely added that 100 percent of the decisions recently made by her office are being challenged in court by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project.
"I find this hard-line tactic abhorrent," Wisely said. "Blanket, across-the-board appeals such as these are wrong and counterproductive."
Wisely also told ranchers she is committed to protecting their grazing rights.
"Grazing was and is one of the pillars of BLM's multiple use plan, including grazing land within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument." she said. "It's a legitimate use, although it's a controversial use."
She challenged ranchers to learn all they can about land use issues, to participate in the planning process at an earlier date and to get to know their local BLM officials.
"The American West is changing at an unprecedented rate," she said. "The challenge is how to make this change work for us and not against us."