July 26, 2005
New York Times
The sagebrush solution
By John Tierney
Boulder, Utah Dell LeFevre has been consorting with environmentalists,
and he understands why this makes his neighbors nervous. It makes him nervous,
too. He is not what you would call a tree-hugger.
Mr. LeFevre, who is 65, has no affection for the hikers who want his cows out
of the red-rock canyons and mesas in southern Utah, where his family has been
ranching for five generations. He has considered environmentalism a dangerous
religion since the day in 1991 when he and his father-in-law found two dozen cows
shot to death, perhaps by someone determined to reclaim a scenic stretch of the
Escalante River canyon.
Mr. LeFevre wants the ranchers to win this range war against the lawyers and politicians
trying to restrict grazing on the plateau north of the Grand Canyon. He fought
unsuccessfully to stop the Clinton administration from declaring it the Grand
Staircase-Escalante National Monument because he knew the designation would mean
more regulations, more hikers and fewer cows.
"I don't even know what the Grand Staircase is - nobody around here's ever
called this place by that name," he said as he drove me around in his pickup
truck, showing me hillsides and canyons where his cows no longer graze. "We've
got Easterners who don't know the land telling us what to do with it. I'm a bitter
But he is not bitter when he talks about the deal he made with an environmentalist
named Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Mr. Hedden's
group doesn't use lobbyists or lawsuits (or guns) to drive out ranchers. These
environmentalists get land the old-fashioned way. They buy it.
To reclaim the Escalante River canyon, Mr. Hedden bought the permits that entitle
Mr. LeFevre's cows to graze on the federal land near the river. He figures it
was a good deal for the environment because native shrubs and grasses are reappearing,
now that cows aren't eating and trampling the vegetation.
Mr. LeFevre likes the deal because it enabled him to buy grazing permits for higher
ground that's easier for him and his cows to reach than the canyon. (He was once
almost killed there when his horse fell). He's also relieved to be on land where
hikers aren't pressuring the Bureau of Land Management to restrict grazing, as
they did for the canyon.
"I was afraid the B.L.M. would add so many restrictions that I wouldn't be
able to use the land anyway, and I'd be out the $100,000 I spent for the permits,"
he said. "The B.L.M. just shuts you down. Bill said, 'Let's try to resolve
this peacefully and make you whole.' I respect that."
Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story.
Even though Mr. LeFevre and other ranchers along the Escalante willingly sold
their grazing permits, local and state politicians are fighting to put cows back
on those lands. They say their communities and the ranching way of life will be
destroyed if grazing lands are allowed to revert to nature, and they've found
sympathetic ears in the Bush administration.
The Interior Department has decided that environmentalists can no longer simply
buy grazing permits and retire them. Under its reading of the law - not wholly
shared by predecessors in the Clinton administration - land currently being used
by ranchers has already been determined to be "chiefly valuable for grazing"
and can be opened to herds at any time if the B.L.M.'s "land use planning
process" deems it necessary.
But why should a federal bureaucrat decide what's "chiefly valuable"
about a piece of land? Mr. Hedden and Mr. LeFevre have discovered a "land
use planning process" of their own: see who will pay the most for it. If
an environmentalist offers enough to induce a rancher to sell, that's the best
indication the land is more valuable for hiking than for grazing.
You'd expect Republicans to welcome this use of the market to resolve an environmental
dispute, with a voluntary, mutually beneficial transaction instead of a political
or legal fight leaving winners and losers. It's a classic case of the free-market
environmentalism that Gale Norton espoused before becoming interior secretary
and overseer of the B.L.M. lands.
The new policy may make short-term political sense for the Bush administration
by pleasing its Republican allies in Utah and lobbyists for the ranching industry.
But it's not good for individual ranchers, and it ensures more bitter range wars
in the future. If environmentalists can't spend their money on land, they'll just
spend it on lawyers.