The clouds shade us as we cross the fence. The swing gate sways in the wind, the mass of wood and jumbled barbed wire is a strange sight in the canyon floor. Splashes of light split the clouds and sprawl across the far canyon walls. Horseshoe Canyon is illuminated in a patchwork of sunlight that pierces the clouds and begins to heat the canyon.
The fence line we have just crossed is the boundary dividing BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and Canyonlands National Park. We enter the southern portion of the park, our march northwards takes us down canyon. As the rest of us finally clamber over the fence we take a slight detour out of the bottom of the wash. We reach the crest of a small hill and gaze out at both sides of the fence line. Our instructor Dave prompts us, “look out at both sides of the fence and tell us the differences you see.” There is a long pause as all our heads swivel from looking up the canyon to back down. We all remain quiet for a long time, and I cannot notice any outstanding differences on either side of the fence. My mind wanders as I gaze at the towering red walls on the far side of the canyon. I notice the occasional junipers littered along the slopes below the cliff faces. Gradually my mind wanders back to Dave’s question, and I begin to notice the vast greens down canyon in the national park. I am not the only one. A couple of us voice our find to Dave. Then the differences come pouring out, the cow tracks on one side of the fence, but not the other. The national park side looks to contain a lot more underbrush and greenery than the BLM side. Dave acknowledges our observations, “This section of Canyonlands stopped grazing a couple decades ago.” The difference in habitat is really noticeable once you finally become aware of it. I watch as a breeze bends the grass heads on one side, while on the other a wave of sand and dust is pushed down the wash. The national park had an amalgam of plant life growing in it, while the BLM side was mainly dominated by scorched shrubs and rock outcroppings. This was my first experience with the effects of grazing on a landscape. Grazing was not something I had ever thought of as having a heavy habitat impact, yet here I stand. One side shows the recovery of the land as it stopped grazing a few decades ago, while the other shows the effects of continuous grazing to this day. Canyonlands National Park only stopped grazing a few decades ago, due to the presence of the Great Gallery, a popular and spectacular rock art panel. What if they had never allowed grazing from the beginning? How lush would it be? Would there be fewer non-native plants? Would the ground cover be different? Instead of walking on terraces that are only covered in sand and rocky shale, would they be covered with grass instead?
We descend down into the wash again and continue our hike down the canyon. As we venture further into the park land we are greeted by a running stream that seeps out of the rock. Along its edge there is an extensive stand of cottonwood trees. They start off in small patches of only a couple trees, and then they erupt out of the ground every couple yards, as they march down along the streambed. The landscape has changed so much, and we have only gone a quarter mile since crossing the fence. Is this what the Native Americans saw when they first came into this canyon? All of this lush foliage sprouts out of the wash, and the slopes of the canyon are filled with green grasses and shrubs. Is this the true face of the canyon? Should the upper canyon that I just walked out of look more like this? Have I been walking through an anthropogenic wasteland till now?
The BLM and the park service are both under the US Department of Interior, yet the agencies have different directives. BLM manages their land for multiple use, including grazing, recreation, wildlife, mineral extraction, oil and gas development,, timber harvesting, and right of way (roads and power lines). The park service manages our national parks, monuments, and recreation areas. Park Service management is focused more on preserving intact ecosystems, they are charged with preserving lands for the enjoyment of future generations. Now this does not mean that there is no use of the land that the park service manages. Grazing is still allowed on some park lands, as well as other uses, they do not completely “preserve.” Park service land generally aims to be very open to the public, they try to keep sites well-kept and respected, but also often put in infrastructure for access and lodging.
As stated earlier the BLM is required to manage land for multiple use, they have millions of acres under their jurisdiction. The BLM regulates these uses in order to generate revenue and allocate resources. Yet even within these multiple uses that the BLM regulates for there are still debates over which use should be prioritized, and where certain activities should be prohibited. Where do you draw boundaries?
These questions will receive a lot of different answers depending on who you ask. There are a lot of people who believe that there should be more areas that are strictly dedicated to recreation or wildlife. People enjoy hiking, hunting, fishing, and off-roading. They like to use the land for fun and sustenance. When industry comes in and destroys areas that they have previously enjoyed and begin mining, they may get upset. That area will never be what it was to them before the mine, the fracking, or massive logging. People begin to see the after affects like I saw them. They look at the grazed land and the protected land and think “why can’t more land be like that?” On the other hand people see something else entirely. If you look out at a field and think that would make great cow pasture then you would use that open resource. Some look at the park lands that are not grazed and argue as to why we are not using that available resource. I personally really like hamburgers and steaks. Cows need to eat to grow, and grazing is a natural thing that must be done in order to feed the country. If you put out more cows on the land then you raise more meat, you generate more revenue. Why lock up land and keep it out of hands of progress? You cannot use the uranium in the ground if it is on designated wildlife land, you cannot even drive on that plot. What is the point of leaving it locked in the ground when we could use it for ourselves?
I love food. I enjoy steak the most. Coming out on this program is great, but man, all these vegetarian meals could be so much better if we could throw in some bacon bits or chicken. The point is I was astounded by the effects of grazing that I saw down in Horseshoe Canyon, but I also understood why grazing is allowed. But what should have priority in these cases? Should we preserve the land more so that it may retain its natural beauty? Or should we use it for our own gain and enjoy it while it is available? Is it possible to come to a middle ground that would allow for the beauty to shine through while cows graze? Why is it so hard to reach a reasonable compromise? I love the outdoors, and I do not want to see mining operations litter the landscape. I also enjoy video games, and driving my gas guzzling truck. I need oil and I need power. I believe that we can do a better job regulating what we have. Using the land is not a problem to me as long as we do it right, we minimize our impact as much as possible, and we clean up our mess. We have lost a respect for nature that is essential to using our resources sustainably. If we can get that back then I think more people will be willing to use our land in a manner that does not leave it barren after we use it. Even if it means cutting back on our current ways of life.
So far, it seems we don’t know how to use our land respectfully. We destroy ecosystems without a second thought. So why not continue? Why change now? We could use the resources that are there and enjoy it while it lasts. Or we could completely change. What about going the complete opposite direction and preserve as much as possible? No more industrial expanding. Leave the wild as it is. Or should we go with my personal belief and find the middle ground? Let’s make a compromise.