During his administration, President Barack Obama has designated 19 national monuments amassing a total acreage of more than 260 million acres – more than any other president.

Against those heavy odds, ranchers in Idaho endorsed congressional efforts this summer to pass a wilderness plan in their state – primarily to stop Obama from using the presidential pen.

For ranchers in the West, a monument is a greater threat to multiple use of federal land.

The Berryessa Snow Mountain region in northern California was designated in July as a national monument. California producers are now unsure what will happen to the grazing permits they have used for generations.

“The national monument designation worries us,” says Billy Flournoy, California rancher and president of the California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA). “History has shown time and time again that federal agencies respond to these designations by curtailing or even eliminating grazing from the designated area.”


During President Bill Clinton’s administration, the Corizo Plains in southern California were designated as a national monument. According to Flournoy, Clinton implied grazing rights would be maintained. But eventually, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decreased 10-year grazing leases and made grazing extremely difficult within the monument, Flournoy explains.

“Examples like this can’t continue to happen,” Flournoy says.

Choosing the lesser of two evils

The Boulder-White Clouds area in central Idaho was targeted as a possible national monument in 2014 after years of consideration. But ranchers went into action and were willing to prevent it – even if it meant working with the government to create designated wilderness areas.

While the ranching industry has been hesitant in the past of wilderness areas, the Boulder-White Cloud debate forced Idaho ranchers to play their cards. U.S. Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who had been working on a central Idaho wilderness bill for more than a decade, ushered through a final version this summer that created three wilderness areas stretching across the forests in the Boulder-White Clouds region and portions of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Simpson’s past efforts had gone nowhere through Congress. But with Obama and environmental groups threatening to make the area a monument, the threat was clear: Pass a wilderness bill through a Republican Congress or get a more stringent monument.

Suddenly, Republicans such as Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who had balked at previous wilderness proposals, were now on board. The Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill was passed and eventually signed by Obama on Aug. 7.

“We don’t like either one – the monument or the wilderness bill,” says central Idaho rancher Doug Baker. “But I think the wilderness bill is the lesser of the two evils.”

While the monument was expected to encompass 591,804 acres, the new wilderness legislation covers 276,000 acres. Grazing ranchers can voluntarily retire their permits with compensation from a third-party conservation group. No new grazing allotments are allowed in the new wilderness areas, but four wilderness study areas on adjacent federal land are being released for multiple use.

Still, ranchers realize the smaller impact of the wilderness bill is of some consolation compared to a national monument.

Shane Rosenkrance, a cattle producer who manages 2,000 cow-calf pairs near Mackay, Idaho, says Simpson has been working on the wilderness for many years before the monument designation sneaked in.

“When Simpson tried to run the bill before, there was quite a bit of opposition,” Rosenkrance says. “But now most of the communities recognize that we’d rather have an Idaho wilderness bill come into play than a government-mandated monument that we have no say in.”

Wyatt Prescott, president of the Idaho Cattle Association (ICA), says creating a wilderness designation plan will place producers in a better position to help shape how the land is managed – as opposed to a monument.

“Monument designation takes management out of local hands and puts it into the executive branch,” Prescott says.

According to Prescott, wilderness regions will make it easier for ranchers and producers to have a voice and input on management practices. Another purpose of the wilderness legislation is to prevent the executive branch from pushing a national monument through with one signature.

“They are not going to slap a monument on it if we have a wilderness deal being brokered,” Prescott says.

The area is already scrutinized and heavily restricted. It isn’t even being utilized as much as it should be, Prescott says, and he wishes the management would just stay the same.

“Even though it’s great ranching country, agencies have restricted it already,” Prescott says.

Baker operates a family ranch in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, right in the heart of the wilderness area. According to Baker, there used to be 30 ranches in the area; today only four remain. The other operations sold out for subdivision development to escape the hassle of government regulations.

“We need that federal ground to graze on, even with all the regulations,” Baker says. “When the last cow comes off the federal allotments, we can’t make a living anymore, and we’ll just have to sell out too.”

To maintain herd numbers, Baker has rented private pasture, but that could change as well. The monument would not only affect federal lands but private property as well. Approximately 7,810 acres of private land lie in the boundaries of the national monument.

“They are just about to put us out of business,” Baker says.

The Public Lands Council (PLC) supported the wilderness bill even though the organization disagrees with the idea of grazing being retired from any land – but it was about choosing the lesser of two evils.

“While any attempt to restrict productive uses of our natural resources is concerning, the Antiquities Act has been continuously abused to make sweeping designations without public input or factual basis,” says Brenda Richards, PLC president and Idaho rancher. “PLC appreciates and applauds Representative Simpson and Senator Risch for following the appropriate process by including local input when working on designation for the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness area.”

Long-term effects

Back in 1996, only two days of warning were given to ranchers near Escalante, Utah, before the Grand Staircase became a national monument – 48 hours to prepare for their management plans to change forever. Now nearly 20 years later, Utah ranchers are still battling the restrictions of the Antiquities Act.

Kevin Heaton, Utah State University area extension specialist, says when President Clinton designated the monument in 1996, he promised grazing levels would not be affected and the monument would continued to be used. In spite of those promises, regulations in the monument plan have restricted other important production aspects such as roads and vegetation treatments – which stunt range and permit improvements.

“Things like that went into the plan and really hog-tied ranchers in their management,” Heaton says. “If they can prevent ranchers from doing any land management improvements, the forage is going to diminish and eventually there won’t be a forage base to sustain livestock.”

Fourth-generation rancher Hal Hamlin says before the monument was designated, techniques such as controlled burning were used to control brush and invasive species – now it is prohibited. Hamlin had to reduce his permits’ stocking rates nearly 60 percent and lease private property to avoid reducing his overall herd numbers.

“We’re losing grazing every year,” Hamlin says. “You can’t run cattle without feed.”

According to Heaton, some ranchers have sold out to environmental groups, who are determined to remove all cattle from the land, to end the constant battle with the government.

“It makes it so difficult to put in new water developments that it is almost impossible to do; we can barely maintain what we have,” Heaton says. “Range improvements are limited, and the plan limits the ability to manage and take care of the land like we know we should.”

The range management staff for the monument is really good to work with, but their hands are tied from all of the environmental pressure, Heaton says. Ranchers are managing the best they can, but the constant battle to get permission to improve pastures is taxing.

“These ranchers have protected this land for many generations and preserved it into the monument that it is,” Heaton says. “The reason it is nice enough to be a monument is because it was taken care of by ranchers that are out on the land every day.”  end mark

PHOTO: Cattle graze in permitted areas along the Boulder-White Cloud wilderness area in central Idaho. Photo by Jamie Keyes.