Tom Clyde: Accepting that the West is no longer wild
A recent article by Brian Maffly in the Salt Lake Tribune caught my eye. It more or less explains a big chunk of the public lands debate.
Maffly tells the story of a Garfield County rancher who operates part of the year on land owned by the state of Utah through the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA. SITLA manages lands that were given to the state by the federal government at the time of statehood. The SITLA land is supposed to generate money to fund education.
The ranching family had operated on the land leased from SITLA for generations. The article didn’t say whether this was summer or winter range, but it really doesn’t matter. Cattle have an annoying expectation of eating every day. So in a climate like ours, a ranch can’t function without a balance of summer and winter grazing land. Typically, a rancher will own a base ranch where he can raise hay and keep some of his stock close to home. But for large parts of the year, the livestock are on rangeland suited to the season, and a lot of that will be land leased from either the feds or the state.
If one of those leases is terminated, the ripple effect is potentially fatal to the rancher’s operation. He can’t tell the cattle to suck it up and go without eating all winter if he loses the lease on the winter range. If you have to feed hay all winter, they will eat any potential for profit. So maintaining that balance of seasonal rangeland is essential.
Our Garfield County rancher was upset when SITLA sold 500 acres of rangeland he had been leasing. Apparently, this particular patch of paradise is so barren that it can support all of 20 cows for a couple of months a year. SITLA sold the land for $774,000 to a guy from St. George who is not a rancher, and perhaps not a real estate genius, either. The rancher had been paying SITLA $128 a year for the right to graze on that land. So it would take the new owner something like 6,000 years to recoup the investment on grazing fees.
By selling it, SITLA has $774,000 in cash to invest. If they make 5 percent, that’s $38,700 a year. Even a student of Utah’s underfunded schools can see that $38,700 is more than $128. Deals like this have built up an endowment fund at SITLA of about $2 billion. If you are in charge of SITLA, it looks like a successful transaction. If you are a rancher suddenly in search of replacement range, and hoping to pay $128 a year for it, well, you are going to be disappointed.
Garfield County is not amused. SITLA also canceled a grazing lease near Lake Powell, and that land is now part of a “glamping” resort, one of those luxury tent camping facilities. So a longtime Garfield County rancher and a few cows are partially displaced and replaced by the sort of people who go “glamping.” Local cowboys supplanted by French tourists. Mon du! It is nothing less than an assault on the local custom and culture. The lease on the glamping parcel produced $140 a year in grazing fees for 24 cows. The proposed resort development is estimated to be worth $200 million when completed.
So it appears to be the official position of Garfield County’s officials that it serves some important state purpose to lease land for $140 a year to a ranching operation that might employ a few people outside the owner’s family, rather than use the land for some purpose that would generate higher rent from the glamping resort, or sell the land and invest the cash on a basis that would generate more than 300 times the income for the school system. Makes perfect sense if you’re a rancher.
And that, really, is the crux of the public land argument in the West. Preserving large land areas now used for grazing to protect archaeological sites or develop into national parks that bring in millions of visitors who spend real money seems to be in conflict with local ranching operations that barely sustain a few families in a business with very few outside employees, and which attracts almost no outside cash into the local economy.
Nobody likes the idea that they and their culture are obsolete. Owning a business where there is a risk of a lease not being renewed is always a bit dicey (lessons we have learned the hard way here). The ranching culture is something unique to the West that deserves to be respected and preserved. But let’s be honest about it, and admit that it is more of an artifact than an economic factor.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.