Conservation Groups Oppose the Nature Conservancy’s Cattle Grazing Development Project on the Border of Canyonlands National Park

The Dugout Ranch, acquired some 20 years ago by The Nature Conservancy is the last commercial operation before one enters the incredible spires, arches, and slot canyons of The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  Tiny streams trickle through deep canyon bottoms where cottonwoods provide cooling shade in this water-scarce area of Utah’s red rock desert and every drop of water is precious, especially in our warming climate.

Unfortunately, The Nature Conservancy plans to construct additional spring developments, stock ponds, and fences in this sparse and fragile landscape that will consume scarce natural water sources for continued cattle grazing.

Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a formal Objection and a call for a full Environmental Impact Statement with the Manti La Sal National Forest on March 30th objecting to the Cottonwood Range Improvements Project, for the grazing allotment managed by The Nature Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch.  We tried to reach out to The Nature Conservancy about our concerns before we objected but they did not respond so we were left with no choice but to file our objection.

The grazing development project claims to reduce overgrazing near water sources and heavily-used areas, but the environmental documents and existing Forest Plan indicate that the area is already in a degraded state and that forage production continues to decline to a fraction of its potential.  The best available science shows that a major problem with livestock grazing in these arid areas is too many cows on too little land and insufficient rest from grazing for plant communities, streams, and springs to recover.  The current proposal is to continue grazing as has been practiced in the past – the very reason that has led to the current degraded state of the landscape and is antithetical to The Nature Conservancy’s much-lauded claim of ‘sustainable’ land management.

The Forest Service’s environmental analysis lacked any current data for forage production, status of the plant communities, and condition of springs, seeps or streams.  Astoundingly, the Forest Service stated it does have the data for forage production — but didn’t use it in its environmental analysis.  Even worse, there was no monitoring or research data from the Nature Conservancy and its Research Center for its own grazed lands.  Basically there’s been no documented change in management since the Nature Conservancy acquired the Dugout Ranch over 20 years ago.

The severely deficient environmental assessment did not disclose the number of existing water developments and diversions in the Cottonwood allotment or the National Forest, even though the Biological Opinion for the project clearly states that ‘water depletions from the Upper Colorado River and San Juan River basins are likely to adversely affect Colorado River fisheries and their designated critical habitat through multiple ecological stressors, such as habitat loss, competition from non-native fish, and degraded water quality.

These developments and diversions for cattle consume water that would normally go downstream to the Colorado River and aid the recovery of its declining populations of endangered fish species as required under the Endangered Species Act.   Although diversions in excess of 100-acre feet are required to pay a ‘depletion fee’ to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Program there are thousands of small diversions that consume scarce water.  The simple truth is that fish need water and the payment of dollars in exchange for continuing depletion of water from the Colorado River watersheds, especially in a warming climate, is not restoring the multiple species of endangered fish.

This project should not go forward until the Nature Conservancy and Forest Service produce a science-based data analysis and grazing system design that would restore these degraded lands, water sources, and wildlife habitat.

Jason Christensen is the Director of Yellowstone to Uintas Connection.

John Carter is the staff Ecologist for Yellowstone to Uintas Connection.