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Feds seek public input on Grand Staircase-Escalante management plan
And various other tidbits
NEWS: The Interior Department has released the draft resource management plan for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and is seeking public input on four possible alternatives.
CONTEXT: While a national monument’s designation gets all the fanfare, the management plan is kind of a bigger deal, because it guides what level of protection the monument will get. When the Trump administration shrunk Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in 2017, he also issued crappy management plans for what remained (ordering suspended grazing permits be reissued, for example). And even before that, the management of GSENM was the target of criticism for failing to adequately protect the 1.9 million acre monument.
I haven’t delved too deeply into the monster of a document — the two volumes together come in at about 1,200 pages. But a cursory look tells me the agencies’ preferred alternative (Alternative C) is a big improvement over the status quo. It “emphasizes the protection and maintenance of intact and resilient landscapes using an area management approach.” Though it’s less restrictive than Alternative D, this approach would significantly up limits on grazing, motorized vehicle use, and target shooting across the monument in relation to the current plan.
Some takeaways from the preferred Alternative C:
It would have four management areas: Front Country, Passage, Outback, and Primitive. So the Front Country, for example, would have developed infrastructure, campgrounds, and so forth, while the Primitive Area would have no development or facilities and no motorized or mechanized access.
Grazing allotments that are not currently under permit would be permanently closed to livestock (as opposed to the existing plan under which virtually all of the monument is open to grazing permitting). New structural range improvements and non-structural improvements aimed at increasing livestock forage would be prohibited. And land health assessments would be required for allotments.
Off Highway Vehicles would be banned from the Primitive Area and selected other areas and limited to designated routes in the rest of the monument.
But the document isn’t just about management. It also provides a detailed picture of the national monument’s landscapes, ecological health, and effects of management thus far. It’s worth a closer look just for these aspects (and if you don’t want to read all those words, just check out the maps in Volume II).
I’m especially interested in the chapters on livestock grazing, since that’s been such a contentious issue. Ever since Clinton established GSENM back in 1996, Utah politicians have insisted it was a ranching-industry killer. The numbers tell a different story:
2.23 million acres: The extent of the livestock grazing decision area for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument management plan (because it extends onto some neighboring federal lands).
125,800 acres: Amount of that land that is currently wholly or partially unavailable for livestock grazing.
314,700 acres: Amount of land that would be unavailable for grazing under preferred Alternative C.
1.15 million acres: Amount of land that would be unavailable for grazing under Alternative D of the draft management plan.
101: Number of permittees allowed to graze cattle on 76 active allotments in the decision area.
106,645: Number of permitted AUM*s in effect in the decision area when GSENM was established in 1996.
106,202: Number of permitted AUMs* in the decision area now. The 2020 Trump-era management plan would have activated any suspended/retired AUMs and increased the total number of AUMs to 107,995. (AUM=Animal Unit Month=one cow-calf pair for one month; so if a cow-calf pair spent a year on an allotment it would count as 12 AUMs).
95,406: Number of AUMs that would be allocated under preferred Alternative C.
So, as you can see, about 97% of the national monument remains open to grazing and the number of permitted livestock has decreased by a mere .4% since the monument was established. So, no, national monument designation has not destroyed ranching.
Which is not to say that the same number of cattle are grazing in the area. The BLM’s data show that ranchers are choosing not to use all of their permitted AUMs on nearly every allotment in the monument. On Clark Bench, for example, ranchers are using just 477 of 1,238 permitted AUMs; at Death Hollow it’s only 553 of 1,057; at Last Chance the permittee is using only about half of their allotted AUMs. And so on and so forth.
That suggests it’s the livestock operators themselves, not the land managers or monument protections, that are limiting grazing. And it also suggests the proposed cuts to grazing in the management plan won’t have a deleterious effect on livestock operators, and that there will still be a lot of bovines munching on native grasses and trampling the fragile cryptobiotic soils.
It should be noted that the agencies’ preferred alternative is merely a starting point for discussions and public input.
This is a bit of a clarification on “valid” vs. “active” mining claims in national monuments.
In a recent Land Desk dispatch on the establishment of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, we mapped the density of “active” mining claims within the new monument’s boundaries and wrote:
Hundreds of existing, active mining claims lie within the new national monument, and the withdrawal and resulting protections don’t extend to existing valid claims, leases, or rights of way. In other words, the mining claims—and the rights that go along with them—will remain.
While this is accurate, it may be a bit misleading, as a few very knowledgable readers, including Sarah Fields and John Leshy, pointed out. Yes, hundreds of existing, active claims lie within the boundaries. And it’s true that the rights tied to existing valid claims are grandfathered in. But here’s the catch: “active” claims are not necessarily “valid” claims.
For a claim to be considered “active” by the Bureau of Land Management, the claimaint only has to be up to date on their paperwork and pay an annual “maintenance fee” of $165, which is often waived. That’s it.
The validity of a claim, on the other hand, depends on the discovery of a valuable mineral deposit there, which must be demonstrated. Here’s what BLM Monticello Field Manager Amber Denton Johnson wrote to Kyle Kimmerle in Dec. 2021 after he filed a plan of operations for the Geitus claims within Bears Ears National Monument:
… location and maintenance of a mining claim does not, by itself, make mining claims valid. Mining claim validity is dependent upon the existence of a discovery of a valuable mineral deposit on each mining claim in question, as determined by a certified mineral examiner. Where operations have been proposed on mining claims on withdrawn lands, a discovery must be demonstrated both as of the date of withdrawal and as of the date of the mineral exam before the BLM could approve a plan of operations.
Johnson’s letter also says a validity examination for a “single, uncomplicated mining claim with no existing disturbance” would cost approximately $90,000 to $110,000. Ouch.
What this means is that there may be hundreds of “active” mining claims within these national monuments, but very few of them are “valid.” And only valid claims have any rights attached to them. Proving validity is expensive and burdensome. So we’re not likely to see a rash of uranium mining on the new national monument, even though it is littered with “active” mining claims.
Random Real Estate Room
I sometimes check out those Instagram accounts highlighting cheap real estate around the world. You know, they’ll have an Italian villa for $14,000 , or a lovely, never-renovated mid-century modern home in Kansas for $39,000. They almost never feature homes in the Western U.S. because, well, cheap real estate is virtually extinct across the entire region. But every once in a while something pops up, like this abandoned school house in Deseret, Utah, listed for $95,000.
I mean, how often do you see a house for that kind of price around here? Sure it’s a fixer-upper, but look at them bones! Of course, it’s in a place called Deseret, population 350. Which I guess is where you gotta go to get a semi-affordable home these days.