Frontier in Transition: A History of Southwestern Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 10)
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The Federal Government in Southwestern Colorado

In 1890, over sixty percent of the land, or over forty-four million acres, in Colorado was owned by the federal government, a sizeable portion of which lay in southwestern Colorado. This fact becomes interesting when one takes into account that for close to thirty years prior to this date, the government's role in determining the use of the public domain was oriented exclusively toward the sale of the public lands to westward migrating Americans. The Homestead Act of 1862, the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878 were, in varying degrees, attempts to promote the settlement of the western areas of the country. The availability of open lands at a low price, and the interest in mining and agriculture resulted in large-scale migrations to the west. Yet, in the government's eyes, the early settlement and economic development of southwestern Colorado, as in other western states and territories during the years from 1880 to 1890, resulted in the overuse and exploitation of timber, grassland, and water supplies. As a consequence, by 1890 the government had expanded its policies for the administration of the public lands to include the conservation of the country's natural resources. The creation of the White River and Battlement Mesa Forest Reserves, in 1891 and 1892 respectively, illustrated this trend. The establishment of the Gunnison, Cochetopa, San Juan, Montezuma and Uncompahgre Forest Reserves in 1905, while further extending conservation as a federal land policy tool to over four million acres of southwestern Colorado forests, gave rise to unfavorable public reaction as well. Southwestern Colorado stockmen, were in most cases adamantly opposed to the conservation of and forced grazing restrictions on forest reserves. They advocated a return to the pre-conservation policies of unrestricted development. Groups in favor of conservation, notably the region's irrigation farmers, maintained that forest reserve policy protected important watersheds, and thereby ensured successful water development. In attempting to respond to both sides of the conservation argument, federal land policy during the twentieth century was formulated to encompass the important issues of reservation, as well as public land sales and development.

By advocating the establishment and efficient management of forest reserves, the Theodore Roosevelt administration (1901-1909) sought to protect certain timber and watershed areas of the public domain from misuse by preventing private homestead entry. Roosevelt did not retreat from the policy of homesteading the vacant public lands however. Despite the fact that between 1880 and 1890, thousands of acres on the western slope were opened to cultivation by irrigation and settlement took place in boom-like fashion, by 1900 the demand for remaining public domain decreased. The problem was a lack of water. Although locally-sponsored irrigation projects had supplied earlier demands, the extent of water needs by 1900 were considerable. The inability of private interests to finance additional irrigation and reservoir construction after the 1890's, in spite of the impetus given to such activities by the Carey Land Act of 1894, prompted the federal government to direct its attention toward development and the reclamation of the arid west.

The Newlands, or Reclamation Act of 1902, in fulfilling the Roosevelt administration's three objectives toward public land use, provided that all receipts from the sale and disposal of public lands in the western states should go into a special fund to be used for the construction of irrigation works. The law authorized the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw from all forms of entry any public lands which might be served by future federal irrigation projects. The cost of construction and maintenance was to be assessed against the allotments of land issued in the reclaimed districts following construction. By this means, it was intended that a revolving fund would be established by which the system of irrigation construction would be self-perpetuating. Under the terms of the Newlands Act, a special bureau was created to oversee the administration of the federal irrigation projects. [1]

Arch at Montrose, Colorado for the Gunnison Tunnel Opening, September 23, 1909. Denver Public Library, Western History Department

In March, 1903, the Bureau of Reclamation assumed the direction of the Gunnison Tunnel Project after progress had stalled on the state-sponsored operation during the fall of 1902. In January, 1905, work crews commenced drilling from each side of Vernal Mesa, and finally, in September, 1909, they met. The intake of the tunnel on the Gunnison River was called the "River Portal", while the west portal, the distributing headquarters for material, was called "Lujane". Here, too, were government barracks for workmen, homes for the families of the married workmen, a post office, a public school, and two churches. [2] When President William Howard Taft touched a golden plate at 5:18 p.m., September 23, 1909, he closed an electric current that opened the headgate of the Gunnison Tunnel, and released water that ran through the tunnel's long bore and out into the Uncompahgre Valley. The tunnel was later improved by concrete lining, and by 1925, the project was considered complete. The total expenditure for the Gunnison Tunnel Project was $6,713,584. [3]

Land entries, after 1909, were never as numerous as had been hoped. As a result, Congress passed the Warren Act in 1911. Designed to promote settlement in federal reclamation areas, this act provided that if there was a surplus of water, the Secretary of the Interior could contract with private industry, associations, and irrigation districts whose lands were within the project, and sell that water to those interests at the actual cost of carriage. [4] Despite early concerns over the lack of public lands settlement, from 1925 onward, the Uncompahgre Valley provided the region with a considerable bounty of agricultural returns. In 1925, the total area farmed under the Gunnison River Diversion Project was 61,637 acres; the average size of farms within the undertaking was 43.8 acres. Agricultural production was valued at $3,032,395, the principal crops being alfalfa, wheat, potatoes, oats, sugar beets, corn, onions and apples. The livestock census showed 5,420 horses, 4,628 dairy cattle, 8,291 beef cattle, 4,656 swine, 28,129 sheep and 61,248 poultry. Farm population was established at 6,092, and town population in the Uncompahgre River Valley (Montrose, Delta and Olathe) was set at 7,400. [5] If Uncompahgre Valley agriculturalists and fruit growers accepted federal involvement in the area with enthusiasm, the region's stockmen viewed government activity with mixed emotions, and often with blatant resentment.

The government's forest reservation and reclamation land use policies had cut into the grazing lands of the public domain that southwestern Colorado's stockmen had long considered their own. Livestock raisers were also hurt by a downward trend in national meat consumption during the years from 1908 to 1914. [6] The situation of western stockmen was made worse by the fact that a lack of supervision and a continued overuse of unappropriated public lands resulted in the depletion of grass and forage resources. Congressional proposals to remedy deteriorating conditions on the public grazing lands through federal controls and leasing programs were, however, countered effectively by those in favor of homesteading. The Grazing Homestead Act of 1916 attempted to dispose of rather than control use of the vacant public domain. The law provided for homesteads of 640 acres on nonirrigable, non-timbered land, chiefly valuable for grazing and forage crop cultivation. The government's efforts to settle the public lands through the Grazing Homestead Act proved to be a failure. By 1920, the number of land entries had been so few that federal officials and Congressmen gradually recognized that grazing might have been the most efficient and perhaps the only use for the unappropriated public domain in the western states. Yet, the lack of grazing controls on the public lands continued throughout the 1920's and early 1930's. Conditions in those areas continued to deteriorate; use was difficult to supervise, and overgrazing became widespread.

Not until June 28, 1934, with the enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act, did the federal government attempt to regulate and control grazing on the unappropriated public lands so as to bring order to the range. The Taylor Grazing Act provided for supervision of the public domain to prevent overgrazing, while attempting to stabilize a livestock industry dependent upon the public range. The Taylor Grazing legislation authorized the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw public domain lands from settlement or entry, and to reserve for classification, the unreserved lands for use as grazing districts in twelve western states. After a grazing district was established, the forage resources in that area were to be leased for not more than ten years to holders of valid grazing permits. From the standpoint of southwestern Colorado stockmen, the most satisfactory part of the Taylor Grazing Act was the provision instructing the Secretary of the Interior to cooperate with local stockmen's associations in the administration of the grazing districts. Due to the poor condition of the rangelands in the state, Colorado stockmen, for the most part, changed their attitude about federal involvement in public land use, and they supported the law as their last chance against being forced out of business. [7]

Problems involving the Taylor Grazing Service and the administration of the grazing districts arose almost immediately after the passage of the Taylor Grazing bill. In 1940, Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada, a member of the Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys, argued that the Service was not providing adequate or effective administration of the public ranges, and was not making progress in the stabilization of the livestock industry. Disputes over range administration deepened further in the mid-1940's when the Department of the Interior proposed an increase in grazing fees. The rationale behind the fee increases stemmed from the fact that in the years since the Grazing Service had been in operation, range conditions and forage resources in most districts had shown marked improvement. The Department of the Interior calculated a fee proportionate to the quality and extent of the resources under its jurisdiction. The debate that followed, however, took on political overtones. The House Committee on Appropriations, concerned with the growth of the Grazing Service's administrative costs, demanded fee increases. The Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys, having substantial backing from western stock interests, demanded that no increases take place. When no increases were forthcoming, in March of 1946, the House Committee drastically cut the Grazing Service's budget. Three months later, the Service lost its status as an independent bureau. The President's Reorganization Plan Number Three, on July 6, 1946, merged the Taylor Grazing Service with the General Land Office, the dispenser of the public lands since 1812, to form the Bureau of Land Management. Under the terms of reorganization, grazing supervision was to be handled by a division within the newly created bureau. In assuming control of the Taylor Grazing districts, the Bureau of Land Management inherited the responsibility for over two million acres in southwestern Colorado. In 1947, the Ouray and Dolores districts, both of which had their headquarters in Montrose, supervised the grazing of 52,860 head of cattle, 207,850 sheep, and granted licenses to over 700 southwestern Colorado stockmen. [8]

The creation of the Bureau of Land Management, in 1946, brought to a close the question of who would determine the use of the public domain. In a period covering some fifty-five years, the federal government gradually assumed responsibility for the maintenance and supervision of all the land under its jurisdiction. By no means did disputes over who would use the public lands find easy solutions with the entrance of federal involvement. If a single theme runs consistently throughout the history of federal land policy in southwestern Colorado, it is that of conflict. Questions as to what use was appropriate, and what interests affected best use of the public domain have characterized the chronicle of the government's land status determinations from 1891 (the creation of the Forest Reserves) into the present. The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Park Service (an agency that will be discussed in the following chapter) have faced the task of reconciling conflicting interests while promoting the highest possible use of the public domain. The obstacle to a solution satisfactory to federal agencies, conservationists, as well as public land users was the fact that an increasing number of interests asserted rights to the federal lands. The battle between cattlemen and sheep raisers, agriculturalists and homesteaders, homesteaders and stockmen, and conservationists and the "exploiters" of natural resources shaped the direction of land use decisions during the first half of the twentieth century.

The basic conflicts over government land use policy and the disputes between land users and conservationists, which developed early in the twentieth century, remain today. In a real sense, the problems have grown larger as new and exploitable mineral resources are discovered, and as interests such as tourism, wildlife management, and cultural resource protection present different approaches to proper public land use.

Perhaps one of the more important effects of federal involvement in conservation and land use policy was found in the way twentieth century southwestern Coloradans perceived their environment and their natural resources. What emerged from federal activity was a gradual recognition that water, timber, and grassland resources were not as plentiful as their nineteenth century ancestors had thought. The waste and over use of southwestern Colorado's land and resources, was part of the frontier experience. The imposition of federal land regulations and conservation policies, while they did not completely arrest abuses during the years following the turn of the century, did necessitate a change in attitude. The notion that the frontier was a place of unlimited resources and the idea that development should be unrestricted gradually lost its application in southwestern Colorado. This change in attitude marked an important transition in southwestern Colorado's history. In the years since 1920, control and management of the region's natural resources and the diversification in the use of those resources characterized the beginnings of a modern era.

Chapter X: Notes

1. For a detailed treatment of the federal government's policies concerning the public domain see: E. Louise Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain: Disposal and Reservation, 1900-1950, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951). For a discussion regarding the Newlands Act see pages 33-62.

2. Sidney Jocknick, Early Days on the Western Slope of Colorado, (Denver: The Carson-Harper Co., 1913), p. 288.

3. Alvin T. Steinel, History of Agriculture in Colorado, (Fort Collins: Colorado A & M University, 1926), p. 39.

4. Densil H. Cummins, "Social and Economic History of Southwestern Colorado, 1860-1948", (Ph.D. Thesis: University of Texas, 1951), p. 653.

See also: Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson, and Duane Smith, A Colorado History, (Boulder: Pruett Press, 1976), p. 264.

5. Steinel, op. cit., p. 539.

6. Peffer, op. cit., p. 157.

7. For a general treatment of the debate over grazing on the public domain and the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act see: Wesley Calef, Private Grazing and Public Lands, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

See also: Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain.

8. Colorado State Planning Commission, Yearbook of the State of Colorado, 1945-1947, (Denver: Bradford-Robinson Publishing Co., 1948), pp. 567-568.

For a discussion of the events leading up to the creation of the Bureau of Land Management, see: Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain, pp. 232-301.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008