The range is sick; O&G leasing is back
Nearly all of Canyon of the Ancients NM gets a failing land health grade
Last week, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility delivered the results of its deep dive into data on the health of America’s public lands. The diagnosis: The patient is in ill health, due in large part to too much beef—i.e. livestock grazing—on drought-stricken rangeland.
PEER drew on 22 years of Bureau of Land Management data for some 21,000 allotments across 155 million acres to build an interactive, digital map that, according to a news release, “creates a visual compilation of the agency’s data on the rangeland health of each allotment and identifies allotments failing to achieve standards where livestock grazing was determined to be a significant factor.”
Kylie Mohr did a nice write-up on the map and some of its overarching conclusions for High Country News. Here at the Land Desk we’re going to zoom in on the Four Corners Country and what we see as a couple areas of concern.
As you can see in the above map, a good chunk of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument gets a failing-health diagnosis and nearly all of Canyon of the Ancients National Monunent is sick, with cattle grazing as the number one cause. (It should be noted that the map uses only BLM data, which doesn’t extend onto Forest Service grazing allotments).
Most national monuments forbid grazing. But the proclamations establishing Grand Staircase-Escalante, Canyon of the Ancients, and Bears Ears National Monuments allowed it to continue as before. While one might hope that national monument status would induce the BLM to manage grazing in a way that ensures the health of the land and antiquities, that is often not the case.
The problem is especially pronounced in Canyon of the Ancients, as the PEER map makes clear. President Bill Clinton established the monument in 2000 to up protections on 164,000 acres (it has since grown to 174,000 acres) of public land containing the highest known density of archaeological sites in the nation. The area had been heavily grazed historically, and the dominant Montezuma County culture and Sagebrush Rebel ideology was centered around ranching, so stopping grazing altogether would have been politically unpalatable, to say the least. So the proclamation, like those for Bears Ears NM and GSENM, allowed grazing to continue according to regular BLM policies.
In 2005, a rancher gave up the large Flodine Park and Yellow Jacket allotments, north and south of McElmo Canyon, respectively, and sold 4,500 acres of adjacent private land to the BLM to add to the national monument. Both allotments and the private land contain a number of intermittent streams, shallow canyons, and numerous cultural sites. They had been grazed relentlessly for decades prior, and showed the wear and tear—much of the cryptobiotic soil had long before been trampled and destroyed and invasive cheat grass had infiltrated the grazed areas. An archaeological assessment conducted later found grazing had damaged dozens of sensitive and cultural sites in the areas.
In 2010, the BLM, which manages the monument, issued a new resource management plan, which allowed for continued grazing, but also opened the door to permanently retiring vacant grazing allotments if they fail to meet BLM rangeland health standards or when grazing is negatively impacting cultural sites. Five of the 28 allotments in the most heavily visited areas—including Sand Canyon—were cancelled, but not the Flodine and Yellow Jacket allotments, which were still in retirement at the time.
Instead, the local county commissioners and a group of ranchers pressured the BLM to reauthorize grazing on both allotments—to bring them out of retirement, if you will. The BLM acquiesced, but environmentalists and tribes with roots in the area fought back, forcing the agency to do a more thorough environmental analysis of the proposal.
Meanwhile, a team of scientists1 came in and assessed the healing process on the Flodine Park and Yellow Jacket allotments, which by then had been cow-free for 11 years (though feral horses had grazed there). They compared biocrusts on those allotments to a fenced enclosure that hadn’t seen grazing for 53 years and a plot that was being actively grazed. What they found was both predictable and remarkable: The longer a plot went without cows, the healthier it was, as summed up by these graphs.
The authors of the report go on to write:
These results indicate a successional process of recovery of soil biocrusts associated with removal of livestock. The process begins with the establishment of light cyanobacteria, which in this study occurred in the 11-year period after cattle exclusion (despite an unknown amount of horse trespass), a relatively rapid process. Over a longer period of time (53 years in this study) the mid-late seral biocrust (especially lichens in this study) establish, presumably using light cyanobacteria and/or dark cyanobacteria as a substrate which results in lower abundance of light cyanobacteria as a cover type over time. In this later successional stage there are also more species of biocrust and less bare ground.
The Yellow Jacket and Flodine Park allotments remain in limbo. Now the BLM is hoping to enlarge the monument further by purchasing two privately owned inholdings, totaling 647 acres, in the Yellow Jacket Canyon drainage. Environmental groups and tribes support the acquisition. But they are not so keen on the BLM’s plan to wrap the newly public land into the Yellow Jacket Canyon allotment (which is different than the aforementioned Yellow Jacket allotment). The sentiment is best summed up by Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa, of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, in a letter to the BLM:
We do not support permitting livestock grazing back in these areas and we support permanent retirement to best protect the lands, waters, plants and animals, and cultural resources within Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.
We have reiterated that livestock grazing is not a permitted use in most National Parks and Monuments because of its known impacts on natural and cultural resources, and it is currently resulting in use and preservation conflicts in which preservation is “mitigated” as a result of use impacts. We reiterate that we consider the BLM’s 19th Century multi-use mission to be obsolete in the management of National Monuments in 21st Century.
Rather than re-scoping the proposal to reintroduce livestock grazing … we recommended that if necessary an amendment to the Resource Management Plan be developed to reflect the results of an archaeological assessment … and specifically define livestock grazing as an unallowable use under the existing Proclamation.
As it stands, more than 150,000 acres in the national monument are open for grazing, and the entire area is gripped by severe to extreme drought. Some numbers:
AUM = Animal Unit Month = one cow and her calf for one month
155 million: Number of BLM acres managed for grazing
17,945: Number of BLM grazing permits in force as of Jan. 2021
21,000: Number of BLM grazing allotments
8.44 million: Number of Animal Unit Months authorized on BLM grazing lands in 2020
6,437: Number of AUMs allowed in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, according to the 2010 Resource Management Plan.
54 million: Number of BLM acres with failing land health standards with livestock grazing as a significant cause.
41 million: Number of acres in grazing allotments the BLM has yet to assess
$1.35 per AUM: Current grazing fee for federal lands and the minimum possible under federal law. In other words, that’s how much it costs a rancher to put one cow and calf out on public lands for a month, during which they will eat between 600 and 900 pounds of forage.
Real Estate Break:
Oh, boy. So, I’m going to link to a story here and, while I don’t usually say this, Read the comments! In this case, they are the most important part, because the story itself is, well, an advertorial, maybe? It’s about the Lionsback Resort now under construction on 175 acres of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration land above town.
Developers plan to build 188 homes, sorry, “casitas,” ranging from 1,600 to 3,000 square feet. There ain’t nothing -ita about that, folks. Still, faulty Spanish and all, this is going to be Moab’s first “utopia,” according to the Utah Business story, which goes on to say the resort is:
revolutionizing real estate in Moab by creating an all-in-one “lifestyle”— complete with community, culture, adventure, and relaxation— as opposed to traditional real estate that’s typically built without all of these things in mind.
That’s not all:
The lifestyle at Lionsback resort is one built on the combination of outdoorsy adventure and the peaceful calm of nature. Those with an appreciation for giving their all on the trails one day and relaxing while enjoying the scenery the next will fit right in.
Oh, boy. I’d offer more commentary, but no need, because the 24 commenters on the article did a pretty darned good job, beginning with this one:
What utter crap. I have never seen anything less popular among locals of Moab than the Lionsback resort. It combines the worst of everything that is hurting Moab’s landscape and community: overnight rentals, luxury vacation homes, and bulldozing a lovely and very locally popular hiking spot to install all this ugly stuff for rich people.
The News: The Biden administration announced this weekend it would resume the federal oil and gas leasing program after a court restored its ability to use a higher social cost of carbon metric in decision making. Oil and gas industry advocates and oil state politicians have claimed, dubiously, that the on-again, off-again pause has hampered domestic oil production and contributed to high gasoline prices. Politicians and experts have called “bullshit” on the claims, explaining that industry is sitting on some 13 million acres of leased, but non-producing land, has stockpiled more than 9,000 unused drilling permits, and is pulling in record profits. The industry response is to further obfuscate the issue.
The Context: Biden first stopped auctioning rights to drill on public land in the early days of his first term to give his Interior Department an opportunity to review the program and recommend reforms. Then a federal court in Louisiana ordered the administration to pause the pause. Biden appealed the ruling, but also scheduled lease sales for early this year.
Just before the first onshore lease sales were set to take place, however, a judge blocked the administration’s interim social cost of carbon metric. In response, Biden again paused the pending lease sales. But on March 16 yet another judge stayed the other court’s injunction, leading to the announcement that sales will resume (though it’s not yet clear when).
When the ban was first implemented, there was widespread applause from the environmental community and scorn from the oil and gas industry. I felt then—and I still feel now—as if both sides were getting a bit overexcited. In January 2021 I wrote:
So when Ryan Flynn, President of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, calls the pause “a blockade around New Mexico’s economy” and claims that “unemployment will rise, state revenue will fall, and our economy will come to a halt,” he is—to put it mildly—shoveling up a bunch of alternative facts. Similarly, when environmentalists hail the action as having the potential to “keep up to 450 billion tons of climate pollutants in the ground,” they are engaged in some serious wishful—perhaps even delusional—thinking.
I hate to say I told you so, but … I told you so. It’s important to remember that companies are already sitting on millions of acres of public land that they leased but have not drilled. So leasing could be halted altogether for five, even ten years without significantly affecting oil and gas production.
Here’s what actually occurred after the leasing ban was put in place:
Biden’s Bureau of Land Management issued 3,557 drilling permits for public lands during the year following his inauguration, nearly 1,000 more than during Trump’s first year;
Rig counts—the most accurate, real-time indicator of drilling activity—climbed 83 percent over the last year in the public lands states most affected by federal oil and gas policies;
New Mexico oil production shot up to all-time record highs;
New Mexico had a $1.6 billion budget surplus during fiscal year 2021 (July 1-June 30) on the strength of higher than expected oil and gas revenues resulting from the increase in production and global oil prices. The state had so much extra cash that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham upped teachers’ pay;
As of November 2021, New Mexico’s energy-related revenues were up $872.2 million from the same period the previous year—and that was before oil was selling for over $100 per barrel;
Similarly, in Wyoming, oil and gas related revenue projections keep shooting upward. And even coal revenues will climb because high natural gas prices have upped demand for the stuff;
And the “job-killer” rhetoric from the likes of Flynn and Rep. Lauren Boebert has proven not only to be dead wrong, but also disingenuous, at best.
In other words, the oil and gas leasing pause had zero effect on the oil and gas industry. A resumption of leasing isn’t going to change the situation in any notable way either, and it certainly won’t bring gasoline prices down next week, next month, or ever. What it will do is allow corporations—the same ones pulling in billions of dollars of profit right now—to lease the public’s land for $2 an acre, just as they have been doing for the last century. They may drill some of the land, if doing so proves profitable. The rest will be stockpiled to build up their on-paper reserves to help them rope in more investor cash to fund their climate-wrecking ways.
Grazing, Rest, and Biological Soil Crust in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument Marc Coles-Ritchie, Lior Gross, and Mary O’Brien, Grand Canyon Trust.