Potential monument designation makes waves in Arizona
Ranchers, landowners and government officials in Arizona are kicking up the dust over the possible designation of an expansive piece of land currently used for grazing as a national monument.
Last month, Arizona’s governor, local governments, state game and fish commission chairman, state land department commissioner, state chamber of commerce president, farm and ranch organization chairmen and several others detailed their opposition to a possible 1.7 million-acre monument designation they fear is forthcoming from President Barack Obama’s desk.
It’s not like national monuments are something new to folks in this area. With 18, Arizona has more than any other. President Bill Clinton created several monumnets near the end of his presidency, including the Grand Staircase Escalante monument in neighboring southern Utah, and these monumnets create doubt in ranchers’ minds about how safe grazing lands will be if Arizona land is designated.
David Johnson who ranches north of the Colorado River and south of the Utah border in what locals call the “Arizona strip,” said all of his winter grazing country would be taken in by the proposed “Grand Canyon Watershed” monument in northern Arizona.
Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva, introduced the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument Act last fall, which would accomplish nearly the exact same thing, but would use congressional rather than executive action.
Gosar has criticized the Tucson politician, whose hometown is 332 miles from the Grand Canyon National Park, according to Mapquest.
“If you want to kill jobs and push two million acre land grabs…do it in your own district,” Gosar told Grijalva in a news release last November.
The ranch owned by the family of Johnson’s good friend the late LaVoy Finicum would be included in the proposed monument, too, which means the Finicums would lose some or all of their grazing rights. Finicum, along with several members of Nevada’s Bundy family and others, took over a federal wildlife refuge headquarters in Oregon in January. Johnson is also acquainted with the Bundy family, who has been involved in controversial battles with the Bureau of Land Management for years. The Bundy family is the last family in their area after the designation of a desert tortoise as an endangered species made it difficult for other families in the area to continue ag practices.
While Johnson doesn’t necessarily agree with Bundy’s and Finicum’s strategy of withholding their grazing fees, he said their backs were against the wall. “You either lay down and take it or stand and try to protect your rights. You don’t know what to do.”
“LaVoy had stopped paying his grazing fees. They are after him. I think he saw this (the designation) coming.”
The entire “strip” would be included in the monument, Johnson said.
While his private property is not within the borders of the proposed monument, he still believes he would lose access to all of his private land.
Johnson said a ranch that employed him years ago went defunct and he lost his job after a national park expansion. Other private landowners were forced to sell out because of lost access.
Johnson said he and his neighbors have met with government officials, written letters to congressional representatives and done anything else they can think of to keep from experiencing the same fate as Utah ranchers who once grazed cattle in the region of the Grand Staircase Escalante monument and other monuments in his area. Once thriving ranches, those operators lost their bought-and-paid-for federal grazing rights on BLM or U.S. Forest Service land and were unable to make a living on, or in some cases access their private land, and were forced to sell to the only willing buyer — the federal government — at a deflated price.
“We just don’t know where to turn,” he said. “If this designation goes into effect, I understand it won’t allow grazing. It will eventually take me out of business.”
Excess grass will create a real fire danger if grazing is stopped, Johnson added.
“This deal will just wipe us out.”
More ranchers are standing their ground, and some of his neighbors are not planning to give up their rights.
“I’ve talked to a lot of ranchers who say they aren’t leaving. They say ‘we are just going to leave our cattle there.’ I don’t know how that’s going to work,” he said.
Arizona Farm Bureau spokesman, Jim Parks, said the monument, which would cover part of his home county of Coconino, wouldn’t take in his ranch. But that doesn’t lessen his concern not only for the fate of federal land but also for the private and state land included in the boundaries. And the approximately 64 ranchers who would be affected.
Local schools are funded in part by income derived from state land. Parks said that under the proposed designation, around 68,000 acres of state school land will become inaccessible and will not generate revenue either through lease or sale, cutting school financing.
Parks said 28,000 acres of private land will be included in the monument, much of which will not be useable because of lack of access.
“In essence it will drive people away,” he said, recalling a family that was unable to enter their own property – except horseback or on an airplane – or ship cattle after the Grand Staircase Escalante monument was created. “They got frustrated with fighting the BLM and sold out and moved to Florida.
“That is the big rub with folks in this area. Their families settled up there over 100 years ago, before the BLM or Forest Service were even thought of. A lot of these people are on the same land that their great- great grandparents homesteaded. If the government succeeds in reducing the usefulness of the land, they will in essence have taken the land.”
The wildlife will not necessarily benefit either, said the Arizona Chamber of Commerce spokesman, who testified that since the Sonoran Desert National Monument was created, that bighorn sheep populations have dropped from around 100 to 35 because access restrictions make water maintenance difficult.
Parks said the proposed monument would connect two others: the Grand Staircase Escalante monument of southern Utah and the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument.
The author of H.R.3946 – Protecting Local Communities from Executive Overreach Act, Congressman Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), said the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wilderness Society are behind the push for the presidential declaration and that the locals are strongly opposed to the action. The 21 individuals who testified at his congressional hearing earlier this month seemed to verify that claim.
“Under the guise of creating a new national monument, environmental organizations are intentionally trying to sabotage important energy development, grazing rights, water rights and other recreational activities, regardless of input from communities affected by these designations,” he said in his opening statement.
Gosar believes the Antiquites Act, which was used to create the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument and has been used to President Obama to establish more “monuments” than any other president, is being abused.
“While originally created in good faith, the Antiquities Act has been repeatedly abused in order to appease special-interest groups and bypass the legislative process,” he said in a news release.
Local people shouldn’t be ignored when a monument is being considered, he said, because they are the ones who live with the consequences, good or bad. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey agreed.
“Today, the Antiquties Act is being used to lock-up private and public landscapes from common, legal and necessary economic activities that are vital and necessary to the economic prosperity of our great nation,” he said.
Gosar’s legislation would require state governors, local government bodies such as townships and local land and wildlife managers to give approval before creation of a monument.
In addition, private property would have to be excluded unless the property owner consented to its inclusion, the monument would have to be less than 5,000 acre and could not increase existing monuments in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon or Utah. In addition, water rights may not be reserved expressly or by implication and may be acquired for a national monument only according to state law.
Funding for management of current national monuments is severely lacking, Chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, Kurt Davis said, which explains the poor condition of a number of federally protected areas, including the Grand Canyon itself.
“One of the world’s natural wonders is falling apart under the weight of a tremendous financial burden. The National Park Service has a maintenance backlog of $11.5 billion, of which Grand Canyon National Park accounts for a whopping $329 million,” Davis said. “If the foundation of your home is crumbling, you don’t decide to add on to the house, right? That would be a horrible financial decision.”
Instead of adding to its responsibilities, he said, the federal government needs to concentrate on taking better care of the land currently under its management.
“4.5 million acres of Arizona are already designated as wilderness, the third highest figure in the nation. Further, 5.8 million acres of our state are subject to special land use designations including National Monuments, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Conservation Areas, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, Wild and Scenic Rivers and Wilderness Characteristics Areas. The (Game and Fish) Department’s ability to conserve, manage and protect Arizona’s wildlife resources is negatively impacted on all 10.3 million of these combined acres,” Davis said in an opinion piece last year.
“People can say, ‘I love the spotted owl or I love the Grand Canyon,’ but they don’t realize these areas are already under federal control and multiple use policies.. The intent of special interest groups like the Sierra Club is to completely remove it from public use. ❖