Tom Clyde: The beef over the McPolin Farm cattle misses the point
I was away when the controversy over the cattle on the McPolin Farm broke out. After many years of being livestock-free, the City leased the property for grazing. Even in a dry year like this, the grass grows pretty deep on that land, and tall, dry grass is a terrible fire hazard next to a bunch of houses. So in the past, they have arranged to have a neighbor cut the hay from the property. The neighbor apparently no longer wanted it, and the grass grew along with the fire danger. Grazing it off removes or at least greatly reduces the fire exposure, and in the long run, is good for the land. Farms were meant to be farmed.
Nothing happens around here without controversy, and I assumed putting cattle back on the land where cattle have been since it was stolen from the American Indians would stir the pot. There aren’t a lot of us left who remember the active dairy operation, with cows walking across the highway, and the aroma of a winter’s worth of manure thawing in the spring. I thought the controversy would be the rotational grazing method. Rotational grazing is the current trend in pasture management. It involves putting a very high concentration of animals on a small portion of the field for a short time. The idea is that they will, by necessity, eat everything, including weeds and plants they don’t really like to eat. They poop all over it, tromp it in, and then move on, leaving the soil fertilized, aerated, and the weeds whacked. It really works. Not many ranchers do it because it requires a lot of labor and temporary fencing, which quickly gets expensive.
When the cattle are through with that intensive grazing, the patch they have been on can look pretty seriously demolished for a while until the grass comes back. So I thought the issue would be that the entry corridor would look like a chewed up pasture, which surely would lead to the collapse of the local economy, if not the apocalypse.
But I was wrong. The controversy is more fundamental than that. Putting cattle on City-owned land, right on the front doorstep of the town, and caused our vegan population to swoon. We might as well be waving a plate of rare prime rib in their faces. It was seen as official government endorsement of eating meat, rather than reasonable management of property that, left alone, was a fire hazard. This is exactly the kind of decision that gets made when the position of Social Equity Convener remains unfilled. If we had the Social Equity Convener on the job, the City surely would not have entered into a grazing lease without first consulting with all affected people. For at least a year.
For example, the arts community was not involved in the cattle selection. This is Park City, and one would expect some kind of designer cows. There are many possible choices in the bovine palette: red, white, Oreo banded cattle, longhorns, those Rastafarian-looking cattle from Scotland. There are also the historically correct Holsteins. Black angus is such a predictable choice. But the artists were completely ignored in the decision, and that’s what we get, a breed that has been developed, over a century, to thrive in our climate of extremes of hot and cold. Boring.
Bad enough to blow off the artists and offend the vegans, now the environmental community is alarmed that grazing cattle sends the wrong message about Park City’s all important green agenda. If you missed it, the green agenda is the belief that if we recycle our imported wine bottles, eliminate plastic bags, and ride electric bikes, we are a sustainable community. We are sustained by many thousands of gallons of jet fuel bringing in vacationers, who rely on 15,000 people commuting more than 40 miles in exhaust-choked traffic to take care of them. It’s a perfect model of sustainability, and then, right in the entry corridor, we have cow farts undoing all the good we have achieved with our fleet of coal-fired electric buses. There is a concern that the cow farts will produce a localized warming that will adversely affect the snowpack next winter.
Nobody has raised it, but the winter plans have not been made clear. Will the cattle be pooping on the cross-country ski track? It’s terribly hard to wax for those conditions.
If this decision had gone through the normal City process of forming a committee to hire a consultant to engage the stakeholders in an open and inclusive public process to make recommendations on the appropriate agricultural use of the farm, the result might be quite different. We could be growing mangos there, or have Utah’s first herd of free-range quinoa. Instead, we have to put up with iconic Western cattle ranching on an iconic Western ranch.
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.
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