Such a Pity – and Stupid too.

An opinion piece by John Leshy in The New York Times of March 4, 2020 returned my attention to Trump’s mismanagement of national parks, national monuments and federal lands in general. Leshy is a member of the board of the Grand Canyon Trust.

Trump dramatically reduced the size of the Grand Staircase – Escalante Monument in Utah for no apparent reason other than Obama had increased its size.  

The Escalante River runs through the Monument and there are many canyons. Historically, the federal government leased these lands for grazing at very low prices. These lands were never capable of supporting much grazing, but ranchers couldn’t resist the low lease costs. Overgrazing damaged the fragile environment. In the 1990’s, an opportunity presented itself to stop the grazing at no cost to the government or the ranchers. The ranchers who held the grazing rights agreed to relinquish those rights in exchange for money paid by the Grand Canyon Trust.

The State of Utah agreed to the plan, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to the plan, the ranchers agreed to the plan and the Grand Canyon Trust agreed to the plan and paid the money. All the cows were removed. The flora and fauna began to heal. The area benefitted by the plan is now the most popular tourist destination in the monument.  

Last month, the Interior Department reopened 85% of the protected area to grazing, tossing aside the successful deal made 20 years ago.

The motivation for this very bad decision undoubtedly has to do with politics and a group known as the Public Lands Council. This “Council” is actually a special interest group comprised of those who run livestock on public land. Mr. Leshy’s take on this group is that they are determined to prevent retiring “even a single acre of public land from grazing” and that it is intent on preserving its membership and political influence.

Mr. Leshy correctly points out that with this environmental deal being tossed aside by Trump, in the future “it will take a very brave, or very foolish, conservation buyer to want to invest in such arrangements so easily undone by executive caprice.”

Because Texas has such a small amount of federal land, it is hard for me to fully grasp the politics that encompass the tension between citizens of certain states and the federal government regarding public lands. My impression is that in some western states with a lot of federal land there is a great deal of anger and resentment toward the federal government stemming from the inability of the states, individuals and business interests to use Federal land as they choose, often for profit. This anger led, in part, to the standoff between Cliven Bundy and federal agents which began when Bundy refused to be evicted from federal lands for failing to pay his grazing rent for many years.

I suspect that it is this resentment which Trump is trying to capitalize on politically.

Wouldn’t it be better to make decisions about federal land based upon what is best for the land and the general public that owns the land rather than narrowly focused special interests?  The paltry income realized from leasing such marginal grazing land is nothing compared to that.