Capitol Reef
Administrative History
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Origins Of Federal Grazing Regulation, 1880 To 1936

After The Boom: Economic And Range Deterioration

As was typical in the turn-of-the-century West, it was economics -- not the actual destruction of the landscape -- that eventually led to calls for change.

By the 1870s, the American economy was coasting toward tremendous expansion, and livestock speculation went along for the ride. The rapid advance in transportation by the railroads and growth in the eastern population helped fuel the cattle boom discussed above. In 1879, ordinary range stock sold at about $8 a head by the herd. Only two years later, the price was $12, and the scramble for more ranches and more land was fueled by speculators from around the world. [41]

At the same time, favorable weather patterns lulled many novice ranchers into a false sense of security. All this would change with the infamous winter of 1886-87. While it is unknown exactly what effect this winter had on southern Utah, hundreds of thousands of head of cattle and sheep throughout the American West were lost to starvation and sub-zero temperatures. When the winter was over, the industry was devastated:

Cattle that had been valued at from $30 to $35 on the range sold for $8 to $10, if they sold at all. The 'range rights' were found to be fictitious, and the free grass, if not gone, was going under fence now very rapidly. The holiday and fair-weather ranchman and remittance men suffered along with the real cattlemen. [42]

After this "big die-off," the overstocked, overgrazed lands were subjected to several years of abnormal drought. Most large, speculative cattle operations folded by the end of the decade, leaving the smaller and mid-sized cattle ranchers to fight over the remaining public lands. [43]

Early Public Land Policy

One of the most oft-debated aspects of Western history is the role of federal public land development policy in shaping, or failing to shape, the Western public domain. The most widespread interpretation is that the disposition of federal lands from the 1780s, through such legislation as pre-emption and homestead acts, was undertaken for political reasons having little bearing on practical reality. These laws, ill-suited to the West, pitted settler against rancher or rancher against rancher, with speculation, land wars, and overgrazing as the lasting legacy. [44] As land-use policy historian Phillip Foss observes:

This incalculable waste of resources and human life was not a consequence of the forces of nature: nor was it a consequence of the operation of economic forces through the market and the price system. It was basically and fundamentally a result of political decisions which ordered social forces in such a manner as to disturb the balance of nature. [45]

While the bloody range wars did not happen in Utah, thanks to its homogeneous and church-governed majority, ardent competition for mountain and desert ranges resulted in the destruction of vegetation. Even after the removal of many of the huge herds by 1900, the damage to the landscape was, literally, coming into Mormon homes as floods.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into much of the 20th, towns and cities have been inundated by flood waters no longer checked by deep-rooted grasses. Manti reported nine devastating floods between 1888 and 1909, and the years 1923 to 1930 saw a total of 16 Utah counties suffer from floods much larger than ever seen before. [46] Around the Capitol Reef area, these floods had a significant impact on settlement:

Depletion of the range up country and the ploughing of banks practically to the water's edge, increased volume of floods and the result was a severe lowering of the stream bed. By the turn of the century, Mormons along the Fremont below the reef found that much of their farm land had caved away to be washed downstream and that the river itself was dropping below the level of the headgates. The result was a contraction of the original frontier of settlement as people began to move away. [47]

The combination of these floods with the depleted range conditions, continued poor livestock prices, and uncontrolled use of the public domain finally forced Congress to begin looking at regulating the federal grazing lands.

The first comprehensive examination of Western land use problems was completed by John Wesley Powell in 1878. His Report on the Land of the Arid Region of the United States proposed a new system of large, self-regulated ranching units:

The grasses of the pasturage lands are scant, and the lands are of value only in large quantities.

The farm unit should not be less than 2,560 acres. The division of these lands should be controlled by topographic features in such manner as to give the greatest number of water fronts to the pasturage farms.

Residences of the pasturage farms should be grouped, in order to secure the benefits of local social organization, and cooperation in public improvements.

The pasturage lands will not usually be fenced, and hence herds must roam in common.

As the pasturage lands should have water fronts and irrigable tracts, and as the residences should be grouped, and as the lands cannot be economically fenced and must be kept in common, local communal regulations or cooperation is necessary. [48]

These suggestions for future grazing control were undoubtedly influenced by his years in Utah observing early Mormon cooperative practices. In essence, they later became the foundation for the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. Between 1878 and 1934, however, there were few actual attempts to institute federal grazing management, except within the national forests.

The Forest Service Experiments With Grazing Reform

In order to place this study of Capitol Reef National Park's grazing history in context, it is important to examine how other federal agencies in the area have managed their grazing lands, particularly those later included in the national park. The U.S. Forest Service became the first federal grazing manager.

The first forest reserves were set aside by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891, as authorized by what is known as the Creative Act passed that same year. Just what would be done with these resources was not established until the late 1890s.

In 1897, in a pattern often repeated in the years to come, Western livestock industry fears of over-regulation (brought on by President Cleveland's unexpected addition of 21 million acres of forest reserves) prompted Congress to restrict the Department of the Interior's authority to enforce land management. (The forest reserves were not transferred to the Department of Agriculture until 1905.) To ensure future appropriations, initial attempts to dramatically restrict sheep grazing were softened. Cattle were not seen as a threat to national forest resources until later. [49]

For example, early attempts to prohibit sheep in some reserves suffering from overgrazing were abandoned. Instead, a system of free permits would be used to regulate sheep numbers and period of use. However, because there was no way to enforce the permit system, sheep continued to roam the reserves as before. [50]

By 1902, Theodore Roosevelt was in office and his friend, Bureau of Forestry Director Gifford Pinchot, was a rising influence in grazing management. Pinchot realized that unregulated competition between various livestock ranchers was depleting timber and watersheds. He believed that any grazing policy must include some kind of regulation, rather than prohibition and "resting upon cooperation among the user interests themselves." [51]

The Department of the Interior, in a desperate attempt to rectify its previous attempts to manage the range, patterned its new grazing regulations after Pinchot's suggestions. A 1902 circular, issued by the department to help explain its new permit system, said that preference would be given to those who lived within or owned stock ranches adjacent to the forest reserve. Local woolgrowers' associations would recommend which ranchers received permits. This kind of self-regulated permit system favoring the local, established livestock operator, would dominate federal grazing management policy for the rest of the 20th century. [52]

When the forest reserves were transferred to Gifford Pinchot's Department of Agriculture in 1905, the management policies did not appreciably change. The concerns of the now national forests were to "break down the opposition and hostile attitude that sheep and cattle men held" and at the same time "discharge faithfully the responsibility of protecting and perpetuating the priceless natural resources." [53] The solution, according to the WPA Grazing History, was to establish "the first national forest advisory boards in Western range history, for the purpose of hearing by local forest officers the problems of allotment of range, numbers of stock to be grazed, adoption of special rules dealing with local conditions, etc." The history continues, "As soon as this provision was made, stock associations were formed on all the national forests. The stockmen welcomed these organizations and practically all the national forest permittees were represented on the advisory boards. Some of the original national forest livestock associations which were formed in Utah and Idaho are still in effect." [54]

These local advisory boards, made up of permittees elected by their peers, worked with the forest officials in granting permits, establishing allotments, periods of use, and carrying capacity for cattle and sheep. Information about local patterns and needs was the primary reason for the advisory boards. It was not their role to establish or enforce U.S. Forest Service policy. The advisory boards did, however, ensure the local ranchers' perceived right to graze as many head of livestock as possible. [55]

For example, in southern Utah:

The allowance for the Aquarius Forest [the western part of Dixie National Forest] for 1907 was 11,000 head of cattle and 55,000 head of sheep. Cattle season April 15 to November 15 and sheep season lambers May 12, others June 25 to October 20. All applications for cattle and sheep were approved. All sheep applications were approved except those which applied for more than 3,000 head. [56]

Livestock numbers were sustained on the already depleted range, according to Dixie Forest ranger, in an effort to protect "the principal resource of income in Southern Utah." The ranger believed that, had the USFS in 1910 abided by established carrying capacities at that time, the range in 1935 would have supported more livestock. [57]

U.S. Forest Service officials recognized that local economic and social conditions had to be considered when determining the uses of federal lands. From the outset of the forest reserves, it was obvious that range management would be successful only if the ranchers themselves were involved. Contributing to this philosophy was the fact that most if not all the forest rangers during this time were from the local communities. While the advisory boards helped legitimize grazing policy in the national forests, the result was an inability to close off the range to ensure resource recovery. In short, grazing management in the national forests necessitated compromises by the users and federal agencies, while the resources themselves were compromised. This situation would arise again with the implementation of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act.

Economic Problems And Regulation Of The Pubic Domain: 1918-1934

Following the establishment of national forest grazing policies, members of Congress attempted to pass legislation that would create a similar permit system on the rest of the public domain. Resistance from the woolgrowers, jurisdictional disputes between the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, and the lingering belief that the remaining public lands needed to be partitioned by the traditional homestead method, prevented action. [58]

By the 1920s, little had been done to correct range abuses, and the climate for regulation had only worsened. Grazing fees in the national forests had been low since their inception in 1906. [59] By 1918, range conditions had apparently improved enough "to charge a rate which was more in line with the benefits derived." [60] After World War I, however, congressional committees searching for ways to pay the war debt fingered grazing fees as a promising means of raising revenue. While the forest service stalled for time by urging new studies, stockmen opposed to the escalating fees "took advantage of the controversy over grazing fees to make things as uncomfortable for the forest service as possible." [61]

Congressional subcommittees were dispatched out into the field to hold hearings, which turned out to be forums for those dissatisfied with forest service grazing management. These hearings raised the hopes of stockmen that fees would be lowered or even abolished, and awoke the conservation groups who rose in opposition to any change in U.S. Forest Service operations. Historian Foss writes:

The net effect of the investigation appears to have been a weakening of the position of the forest service and a postponement of much-needed regulation of grazing on the public domain. As a result of the forest service fee controversy Western stockmen were more distrustful than ever of federal regulation. The same fee controversy convinced eastern conservationists that the stockmen were out to loot the public domain and that no legislation should be enacted which would in any way accrue to their benefit. And the range continued to deteriorate. [62]

Conditions might have remained in this state for many more years if not for a post-war livestock recession that led directly into the Great Depression. A lot of the Western livestock industry's anxiety over increased grazing fees during the 1920s was due to the agricultural slump after the war. The lower demand for meat and wool caused prices to fall and forced livestock owners to sell at basement prices. It seemed to many ranchers that the worst of the crisis was over in 1930. Then the Depression hit, coupled with an extended drought throughout the West, and the livestock economy appeared doomed. Ranchers must have been disheartened to see their smaller herds forced to graze on range that should be improving but which, because of the drought, was actually deteriorating. [63]

Many ranchers have claimed that drought did more to damage the range than overgrazing. [64] Others, such as to Utah rancher Glynn Bennion, saw things differently:

If the range be considered the principal part of the grazer's capital stock, then we grazers have just about finished consuming our capital. We've got nothing much left to do business with. And all the time we've been kidding ourselves that we could eat our cake and have it. 'It's the drough[t],' we say when looking sourly out upon a depleted range. 'If we could only get the rainfall they used to have.' Let's quit kidding ourselves. [65]

The Works Project Administration's history of grazing in Utah found a depressing scenario for the state's livestock industry:

Ranchers and stockmen who were mortgaged were in many cases closed out, a good many turned their sheep, cattle or ranches over to the banks voluntarily; not however, until after they had been harassed beyond their endurance and could see no future ahead. Those who had kept their property unencumbered and now needed money and credit were unable to obtain it. The years from 1930 to 1934 were the darkest in the history of the livestock industry, and from the viewpoint of the men themselves, the darkest years in the history of local endeavor. Their resources were exhausted; there was nobody or no place to turn. They were finished and merely to watch their animals starve to death. [66]

In Utah and throughout the rest of the West, the stockmen were in such a weakened state that they no longer fought, and in many cases welcomed, federal grazing regulations for the remainder of the public domain.

The Taylor Grazing Act: Passage And Implementation

By 1934, the economic and climatic devastation of the Depression years combined with the New Deal belief in federal assistance to make grazing reform inevitable. With many of the national livestock associations urging reform, and with Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes in strong favor of complete federal control of the remaining public domain, all that was left to decide was the exact wording of the enabling legislation. [67]

There was some reluctance among Western states to give up hope for some control of the lands, but the states had little budget or manpower to manage what lands they did control. Taking on marginal grazing lands would add to the burden. Utah Governor George Dern observed, "The States already own, in their school-land grants, millions of acres of this same kind of land, which they can neither sell nor lease, and which is yielding no income. Why should they want more of the precious heritage of desert?" [68]

In order to win the state-control advocates over to the Taylor Grazing Bill, Secretary Ickes promised to deliver Civilian Conservation Corps crews to help develop range improvements, such as fence, water holes, and stock driveways, in the more impoverished areas. He would do this, though, only if the range was under federal regulation. [69]

While the grazing reform bill sponsored by Congressman Edward T. Taylor (Colorado) was moving through the House with relative ease, Western senators, traditionally opposed to any federal regulation of land use, set about to block its path. The summer of 1934, however, saw the worst dust storms in the country's history, which weakened the last resistance to the Taylor bill. The Taylor Grazing Act was passed by the Senate on June 12, 1934, and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 28, 1934. [70]

The reasons for supporting the Taylor Grazing Act are best summed up in the words of its sponsor:

I fought for the conservation of the public domain under Federal leadership because the citizens were unable to cope with the situation under existing trends and circumstances. The job was too big and interwoven for even the States to handle with satisfactory coordination. On the Western slope of Colorado and in nearby States I saw waste, competition, overuse, and abuse of valuable ranges and watersheds eating into the very heart of Western economy....The livestock industry, through circumstances beyond its control, was headed for self-strangulation. Moreover, the States and the counties were suffering by reduced property taxes and decreasing revenues. [71]

On November 26, 1934, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that withdrew from classification all previously unclaimed public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. These lands, considered valuable chiefly for grazing, were originally supposed to comprise no more than 80 million acres. When Congress realized two years later that this did not go far enough, the amount of land subject to the grazing act was almost doubled to 142 million acres. Of this land, 95 percent would be in areas of the West that received less than 15 inches of annual rainfall. [72]

As stated in the legislation's preamble, the purpose of the Taylor Grazing Act was to "stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration, to provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development, to stabilize the livestock industry, dependent upon the public range, and for other purposes." [73]

In order to accomplish these goals, the Secretary of the Interior was authorized to:

make rules and regulations...enter into such cooperative agreements, and do any and all things necessary to accomplish the purposes of this Act and to insure the objects of such grazing districts, namely to regulate their occupancy and use, the preserve the land and its resources from destruction or unnecessary injury, to provide for the orderly use, improvement, and development of the range. [74]

The secretary was given a great deal of flexibility in determining proper sale of some lands, leasing small parcels to owners of contiguous property, and exchanging lands with states or private interests in order to consolidate federal lands within each grazing district. [75]

Perhaps the most important components of the Taylor Grazing Act have been:

  1. the Secretary of the Interior's authorization to determine and collect grazing fees;

  2. the instructions to the secretary to provide "cooperation with local associations of stockmen, State land officials and official State agencies engaged in conservation...of wild life" [76]; and

  3. the granting of preferential grazing privileges to "those within or near a district who are landowners engaged in the livestock business." [77]

The first provision gave the secretary the power to charge fees and enforce regulations, the second attempted to comfort Western livestock owners by providing for what Congressman Taylor called "home rule on the range," and the third ensured that local, traditional use by established property owners would be guaranteed. [78]

In a further effort to appease state governments, the 1934 act stipulated that 50 percent of grazing fees would be returned to the states, with the remainder to be split between range use and direct contributions to the U.S. Treasury. In 1947, the state cut was reduced to 12.5 percent. [79]

No regulations or fees were established during the first year of the Taylor Grazing Act. This was intended to permit a slow transition that would accommodate the Western stockman, and also to provide an information-gathering period during which many of the lasting policy interpretations could be made. [80]

From December 1934 to January 1935, the first director of grazing, Farrington R. Carpenter (a rancher and lawyer from Congressman Taylor's district), met with stockmen in 10 different states. Stockmen were then elected to a state committee that was charged with recommending grazing district boundaries. The most difficult problem Carpenter faced was trying to acquire as much detailed information in the shortest time possible about range conditions and carrying capacity for each individual district. [81]

The grazing director's solution was to establish district advisory boards, elected by the permittees themselves. These would "provide much of the information necessary and at the same time assist in the decision making process both on detail matters and major policy items," and would also assist in gaining the compliance of local ranchers. [82]

The advisory boards, somewhat patterned after the U.S. Forest Service advisory boards, evolved into powerful groups that guaranteed local input into virtually every facet of public grazing management. Since there was little money or time for scientific surveys, district advisory boards helped determine the carrying capacities of grazing lands. Those numbers could later be revised, if necessary. [83]

In 1936, a year after the grazing districts had been established, the Taylor Grazing Act was amended to specify who should be hired into the grazing service. The Civil Service Commission was ordered to consider those with prior "practical" range experience. The amendment further stipulated that "no Director of Grazing, Assistant Director, or grazier shall be appointed who at the time of appointment or selection has not been for one year a bona-fide citizen or resident of the State or of one of the States in which such Director, Assistant Director, or grazier is to serve." [84]

Thus, in another concession to Western livestock interests, federal grazing officials were required to be a resident of the state in which they were assigned.

The Taylor Grazing Act, like the U.S. Forest Service grazing policies 30 years before, left as its legacy a system of federal range management that favored close cooperation with the concerned local ranchers. The purpose of this partnership was to reduce competition on the depleted ranges and thus provide desperately needed stability for the rancher. It was hoped that if the local ranchers were a willing, integral part of the decision making process, then future resource protection was assured. The federal government seemed to realize that Western livestock owners knew how to play the game, but just needed a few referees to prevent fouls and fights. [85]

Through all this legislation and early federal grazing management decisions, resource utilization was considered to be the only interest in these lands. It was further assumed that the only ones interested in these lands were the ranchers and their multiple-use neighbors, the miners and timber harvesters. By the 1930s, few recreationists or tourists were using -- let alone traveling through -- most of the lands "valuable only for grazing." The only visitors that would come through these desert and mountain ranges were, most likely, on their way to a national park or monument where (supposedly) there was no grazing. It would take several more decades before tourists and environmentalists recognized the recreational potential of the Western ranges. In the meantime, as the federal advocate of preserving natural resources as scenery, the National Park Service would continue to confront the prospects of grazing on its own lands.

One of those confrontations, of course, centered on, Capitol Reef. Before examining the impacts of grazing and its management on national monument and park lands, it is first important to look at the evolution of grazing in the Waterpocket Fold country of south-central Utah.

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Last Updated: 10-Dec-2002