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TrekWest Blog 33: Old Issues and New Ideas around National Monuments

Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, Mid-May

“The heroes in this success story?  Voles, which returned with the gentler treatment of the land, and ate the roots of the weedy plants…”

When Joshua Porter and his Wild Rockies Field Institute class joined Jim Catlin of Wild Utah Project and me in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, we went looking for proof of past occupancy by people who understood how to live with aridity. These included and still include in this region the Paiute people, who prospered in environments where many of us newcomers grow sun-burnt and thirsty within hours. Joshua successfully led us to intact petroglyphs on desert varnish walls, which we admired from a respectful distance.

As Jim and Joshua and I talked with the students, Jim rightly emphasized natural history and good ways of using the land, rather than allow my frustration with the damage to discourage the young naturalists.  Whereas I might have impulsively told them, cows are inherently destructive on arid lands like these, Jim took a more careful, thoughtful approach.  He pointed out on the ground as we walked the effects cows have had here – including erosion, exotic species invasion, elimination of biotic crust – but then told them of better grazing techniques that can allow the native vegetation to thrive, even while supporting family ranches.

I listened quietly as Jim and Joshua compared notes on a dry-lands success story.  A retired biology professor, Dennis Bramble, whom they both know, restored his land in the Escalante watershed to natural health in only two decades by reducing (but not eliminating) cattle numbers and switching his grazing season until autumn, after native plants had already had the chance to spread pollen and precious nutrients to hungry roots.  The heroes in this success story?  Voles, which returned with the gentler treatment of the land, and ate the roots of the weedy plants that had taken over the overgrazed lands.  With the weedy plants reduced, native grasses returned, increasing from ten to 37 species, and the water table rose three feet.

Jim shared with the Wild Rockies students and me a different way of looking at public land debates.  Focus not on whether private livestock should be allowed to graze public lands, focus on keeping public lands wild and healthy, whatever uses may be allowed; on making land management agencies perform their stewardship duties in ecologically informed and honest ways; and on what sorts of agriculture may help meet local and regional needs.  So far, public lands ranching mostly takes forage needed by wildlife to grow organic cows to send to feedlots to fatten in non-organic ways, and then market the meat far from where the animals were raised.  If we are to bring back native grasses and other diminished wildlife, arrest climate chaos, and restore a Western Wildeay, we need to do much better than that, for the Grand Staircase and for our grandchildren.

Jim Catlin and videographer Ed George (newly returned from footage processing time in Flagstaff) introduced me to a couple more ways to do better:  Hell’s Backbone Grill and Gibbs Smith Publishing in Boulder, Utah.  Place-based cooks and books have revived the economy of this lovely little canyon town.  Grill owners Blake and Jen employ more than 30 of the town’s roughly 200 people to grow and prepare the most delicious food you’ll find in southern Utah – feeding thousands of people a year who come to this region for the spectacular scenery, and literally internalize a little of the place by eating its produce.

For the Wild,


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