The Grand Canyon Trust (“GCT”) modernizes public land management by grazing livestock and conducting scientific research. Public lands are rarely managed to account for their exhaustible and diverse resources. To protect these resources, the GCT conducts research as a federal lands grazing permittee and integrates science into federally mandated land-use planning.
Livestock grazing in the arid West is contentious, but its history is rarely debated. Before the middle twentieth century, homesteaders used public land in the West as a common resource to raise their livestock. Congress encouraged a race for public forage and the public rangeland was destroyed in less than century. To regulate and rehabilitate the depleted rangeland, Congress enacted the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 (“TGA”). However, the TGA failed to fulfill these purposes because it created a rancher monopoly on public lands. Grazing permits were given to those who destroyed the range—so were the administrative decisions. The outcome was “home-rule on the range.”
Some forty years later, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (“FLPMA”). FLPMA demands sustainable management of the public’s resources and tasks the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) and the Forest Service with land-use planning. Under FLPMA, managers are required to engage in an iterative (possibly adaptive) land-use planning process that protects diverse interests not commonly held by one person or group.
Environmental law scholars often argue that FLPMA’s language obligates land managers to remove livestock from public lands because overgrazing, or simply livestock grazing, destroys public land. The most common solution offered to curtail the problems caused by livestock on public lands is to remove or significantly reduce their numbers. Thus, scholars assert that managing millions of acres is simple after livestock are removed because they often destroy the land. However, there is no sign livestock grazing on public lands is going to stop anytime soon.
In the early 1990’s, the GCT pioneered a regulatory solution to problems caused by livestock management on public lands. Called “voluntary buy-outs,” the GCT acquired grazing permits in order to retire them permanently through land-use planning. Like litigation and lobbying, buy-outs had limited success. Attempts inevitably faced public scrutiny and for an organization trying to change popular opinion in a rural conservative region, this path did not bode well. The GCT moved away from its plan to retire grazing permits and instead established the Canyonlands Grazing Corporation to own livestock and graze on public rangeland.
The GCT uses its access to public lands to undertake research projects. The resulting site-specific learning outcomes result in information that can be integrated into a wide array of land management efforts. For example, pasture-scale research produces information to assess and develop rangeland health standards, which can be integrated into grazing permits and other land-use plans. Research can also be integrated into planning efforts such as BLM’s Resource Management Plans, which define management objectives for thousands of acres. Other planning efforts include the BLM Research Ranch Network, Southern Rockies and Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, BLM Rapid Ecoregional Assessment, and Southwest Climate Science Center, among others.
The GCT accomplishes pasture-scale research relevant to public land conservation—and others can do so as well. For example, a group dedicated to protecting wildlife can engage professionals to determine wildlife forage requirements. Currently, there is no way to account for most of wildlife’s food supply because their competition with livestock is poorly understood. With research, however, this variable can be determined and communicated to public land administrators. In combination with federal laws that protect these natural resources, pasture-scale research can assure wildlife do not starve to death during critical times of the year.
The GCT embraces its role as a rancher to conserve public lands. Two of the biggest conservation threats to public lands are a lack of administrative resources and an abundance of poor science—both of which are not new problems. Fortunately, the GCT is addressing this problem head-on, taking advantage of access to public lands and federally-mandated planning processes to develop rangeland management. In total, federal law provides an opportunity to study federal public lands and communicate findings to public land administrators and the GCT utilizes this opportunity to conduct scientific research that modernizes public land management.
*Jordan Vogel is a rising 3L at Colorado Law.