Camping in the La Sal Mountains? Expect cows, rangers say.
A herd of cows and their calves were found grazing beside campers at the Oowah Lake Campground in the La Sal Mountains this fall. The mountains are one of several ranges encompassing the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and while the national forest is a multipurpose area, cows are restricted from grazing in paid camping areas, said Tina Marian, range program manager.
Marian was one of several forest service managers answering questions and listening to public feedback at a U.S. Forest Service open house in Moab. The open house, held on Nov. 1 at the Grand Center, was an opportunity for locals and visitors to weigh in with their thoughts on revisions to the Manti-La Sal National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan.
GRAZING IS A HISTORIC USE
Marian works with ranchers to plan for the year-to-year use of the forest land for livestock grazing in the forest’s Moab/Monticello District.
She said people call her “all the time” with their concerns over where the cows should, or shouldn’t, be.
“Those calls are pretty helpful,” she said. “Then I can call the rancher and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got five cows here and they’re supposed to be over here.’”
When grazing is managed properly, it helps the watershed and removes buildup of dead grass and vegetation, she said, keeping the forest healthy.
“It’s one of the controversial uses of the forest, but it’s also one of the oldest uses and one of the most important uses,” Marian said.
Marian, standing beside a table with information on grazing management, said the second biggest concern that people share with her on a day-to-day basis is overgrazing.
“There’s always controversy with grazing,” Marian said. “It mostly has to do with specific areas, where if people see something that looks overgrazed or rough, they want to see something different happen.”
Today, the forest district issues 119 grazing allotments, Marian said. Most of the allotments are handled by longtime Moab-area families, like the Holyoaks, she said, and all of them are for cattle. In 1986, there were 144 designated grazing allotments in the forest, and at that time there were more permits for sheep grazing than cattle, according to the forest’s 1986 Land and Resource Management Plan.
One of the biggest reasons that grazing has changed from a combination of livestock to cattle may have to do with predators, Marian said. Sheep also require a herder to be present, whereas cattle can be released in their permitted areas and monitored.
Changes to the way grazing is managed in the forest today have been made “on the ground” over the years, Marian said, but it’s not in the 1986 Land and Resource Management Plan, which is the latest written plan the forest has available. Despite not having a revised plan in place, the Manti-La Sal National Forest continues to adapt and resolve management challenges and conflicts, Marian said, so people won’t see a lot of changes in the new plan that aren’t already being implemented on the ground.
A draft of the revised forest management plan is expected to be released for public review in spring 2019, said Megan Eno, a forest service partnership coordinator.
Eno, who said she “loves public meetings,” spent a few minutes during the open house talking with Steve Salisbury, a motorcycle advocate from Washington, D.C.
“Cattle here are quite acrobatic,” Eno said.
“They jump over cattle guards,” Salisbury said.
“If one is smart enough to figure it out, sometimes the others will follow,” Eno said. “But sometimes we can paint cattle guards on the ground.”
“They’d be fooled by it?” Salisbury said.
“They won’t cross,” Eno said.
Cows sneaking past fences and jumping over cattle guards to graze outside of their permitted areas, sometimes commingling with campers, hikers, anglers and UTV users, are just one example of the types of conflicts the forest service sees in its daily management of the La Sal Mountain range. Marian said that people should expect to see cows, however, especially if they are camping and recreating in non-fee dispersed areas in the forest where cows are permitted to graze.
ADVOCATES FOR RESPONSIBLE OFF-HIGHWAY MOTORIZED ACCESS
Salisbury, who billed himself as a “recreation enthusiast” representing the American Motorcycle Association (AMA), said that he was in Moab meeting with land managers and attending the public meeting to better understand the conflicts happening in the mountain range. He said he planned to return to Washington, D.C., and share the information he learned in Moab with other motorcyclists.
“Interestingly, I’m looking for other members of the public to see how involved they are,” Salisbury said.” One of my primary jobs is to scan the Federal Register and encourage our members to show up at these things (public land management meetings).”
He explained that most of the members of AMA who want to have off-highway motorized access to forest lands are responsible recreationists. Salisbury said he has worked closely with the “Leave No Trace” campaign.
“The opponents, the ‘antis,’ the other side, will often say that we’re reckless,” he said. “Within any group there are scofflaws, people who don’t follow the rules, but for the most part our membership does, and we want to make sure it preserves our ability to access the land for the future.”
PARTNERSHIP PROTECTS WATER SOURCES
Moab/Monticello District Ranger Michael Diem was at the open house to describe the details of the management plan.
“Our forest planning is under a new planning regulation,” Diem said. “The new process for doing forest planning — the 2012 planning rule — basically changed the planning process. One of the big changes was working on the public interaction and public involvement.”
The forest service is working to engage people early on in the management process, as opposed to producing a plan and then having people weigh in.
“At this point in the process, we’re trying to get people’s perspectives and their outlooks,” he said. “so we can start looking at the whole spectrum of people’s interests and then use that information to be able to go and build our first proposal.”
When asked what he thinks are the most important issues in forest management that the public should be aware of through this planning process, Diem said watershed, recreation and scenery.
The revised forest management plan creates an entirely new watershed management area on the west side of the La Sal Mountain range, Diem said. The plan will ensure the water flowing out of the mountain range into the valleys of Moab and Castle Valley isn’t being disrupted or degraded, he said.
Land adjacent to streams, springs and lakes provides desirable forage production, which makes these areas an important part of grazing allotments, the 1986 forest plan says. But since that time, the forest service has taken steps to protect the water from livestock, including “acrobatic” cows.
Marian said that this year, the Manti-La Sal National Forest worked with the Moab Area Watershed Partnership to protect streams and springs included in the new watershed management area.
“We had a bunch of springs that were being impacted by both livestock use and some wildlife use as well,” Marian said.
They took steps to build fences around the streams and spring sources and installed a separate water tank for livestock.
“That way, we were still able to provide water for the livestock and wildlife, but also protect that sensitive spring source area,” she said.
PRESERVING AN ICONIC BACKDROP
As for the management of recreation and scenery, Diem said it’s important to address the increase in visitation that is occurring and to prevent any changes to the “viewshed.”
“The La Sals are such a backdrop to a lot of the landscape around here, not only to the parks with Arches and Canyonlands, but even just for around the area,” Diem said. “We have to be very careful of the visuals on the La Sals to not necessarily create something that looks unnatural in terms of the landscape. That’s always something we’ll take into consideration because it’s such an iconic backdrop to the community.”
And attracted to that iconic backdrop are thousands of outdoor recreationists. Diem said the increase in recreation in the forest is happening “all across the spectrum,” from rock climbing to backcountry skiing to mountain biking.
“For example, in 2008 we had maybe 400 people use the Whole Enchilada mountain bike trail,” Diem said. “Now we’re over 14,000. Since 2008, we’ve gone up to 14,000 per year on the upper part, so that demonstrates that changed condition out on the ground on the number of people that we’re seeing using the forest.”
The increase, Diem thinks, is from Moab being recognized as a national and international destination. Salisbury, commenting on the number of motorcyclists from the East Coast who visit places in the West like Moab, said it’s a destination that is on a lot of people’s “bucket list.”
The former mayor of Castle Valley, Dave Erley, and Grand County Council member Evan Clapper, were both at the open house to learn about the forest’s revised management plan and to provide comments.
“It’s a pretty good opportunity for real engagement on how that area is managed going forward, with watershed being the top priority,” Erley said.
On Tuesday, Nov. 20, Grand County Council discussed the forest service’s management plan.
“The big things I walked away with was reiterating protecting the watershed, (and) recreation in the mountains is important to our economy and needs to be preserved and managed,” Clapper said.
More than one-third of families in Grand County have a member who works in a tourism and recreation business related to public lands, a research paper published by Headwaters Economics reported in 2015.
“We have a high level of recreation in the La Sals,” Diem said. “It’s not a big mountain range and we’re seeing visitation increasing, and so recreation basically can’t go uncontrolled. Because of the sheer numbers of people that are visiting and the wide range of activities, there has to be a managed approach.”
Updates to reflect current issues at Manti-La Sal National Forest
“Cattle here are quite acrobatic.”