Cows are out, hikers are in at least in popular parts of southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Garfield County Commissioner Dell LeFevre, who is a rancher by profession, has agreed to remove his cows in a rugged area on the lower Escalante River long known as a hiker's paradise as part of several deals between ranchers and the environmental group Grand Canyon Trust.
"It is a win-win for me," LeFevre said about his deal with the group, which involves trading some grazing rights in a part of the monument for a less sensitive one in another area. "But there's a big stir going on . . . ranchers are upset over it."
Indeed, not all ranchers like the Grand Canyon Trust's plan to purchase and retire grazing permits in the monument. The plan has received the Bureau of Land Management's blessing, which recently approved three environmental assessments on the proposal. It comes on the heels of BLM officials in Washington, D.C., rejecting the protests filed by ranchers.
But ranchers plan to fight it.
"We believe it's another attempt to eliminate grazing on public lands," said Mike Noel, general manager of Kane County Water Conservancy District and a member of a Kanab-based group known as the Canyon Country Ranchers Association.
"It's illegal," he added.
But Bill Hedden, Grand Canyon Trust's Moab representative, said the deals amount to only a mere 2.2 percent of all the "animal unit months" a grazing formula that determines the number of cows allowed on public range in the monument.
"We are doing it in select places," Hedden said. "We are not eliminating ranching."
About 2 1/2 years ago, Grand Canyon Trust spent about $600,000 buying the grazing rights in four areas that total about 350,000 acres. It's part of the group's effort to reduce grazing in ecologically sensitive areas throughout the 1.9 million-acre monument by purchasing the grazing rights from ranchers willing to sell their permits. To date, the group has spent more than $1.5 million.
The BLM determined that the areas where the trust had purchased grazing rights should be closed off to grazing, a move that environmentalists say would result in healthier soil, cleaner streams and more wildlife.
Grand Canyon Trust focused on three areas: Clark Bench, located on the southwest side of the monument, Willow Gulch in the headwaters of Calf Creek in the northern part of the monument and Last Chance, which encompasses 260,000 acres on the Kaiparowits Plateau.
LeFevre agreed to give up grazing on an 18,000-acre allotment around Horse Canyon, where there is a tributary of the Escalante River, in exchange to be allowed to graze on a 170,000-acre allotment on the Kaiparowits.
LeFevre said it was becoming difficult to graze his cows in the area of the Escalante River because of its ruggedness and the frequent conflicts with hikers.
"It got me out of a hot spot," he said. "There's a lot of hikers on the Escalante River. I had a bunch of cows shot there and it got to where there was a war going on that I was afraid somebody was going to get killed."
Last year, the Canyon Country Ranchers Association filed an official protest with the BLM in Washington, D.C., over the Grand Canyon Trust's plan to "retire" the grazing permits. The group feared it would bring economic hardship to Kane and Garfield counties.
The Department of Interior recently rejected the protests.
But it could be a temporary victory for the Grand Canyon Trust, noted Hedden."Right now grazing is closed," Hedden said. "This isn't permanent," he added, "It could be changed by future management plans."