Utah’s latest land battle pits ranchers against not the feds but the state


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Born in Garfield County on his grandfather’s birthday 87 years ago, James Robert Ott was named after the patriarch who was among the first to homestead near the Utah settlement of Cannonville, where the family continues to run cattle just north of what would become Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Ott, who goes by Bob, bought an old sheep permit on state trust lands on 519 acres at a place called Yellow Creek abutting his property, just south of his Garfield County town under Bryce Canyon’s pink cliffs. The Otts converted the permit to cattle and have kept their herds there ever since.

But much to the dismay of Garfield County leaders, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), a land-management agency that prioritizes raising revenue for public education above all other considerations, last month canceled the Otts’ grazing permit.

After 50 years of grazing this land, Ott has 90 days to clear his animals, fencing and other improvements off two parcels, which sold Oct. 24 at auction for the princely sum of $774,000 to a nonrancher.

“We don’t want to buy that property. You can’t develop it. You can’t raise crops on it. It’s too hilly,” Ott said. “School trust lands are a bit of a thorn in our side. It bothers us we have a lease, and the next thing we know, they sell it.”

Ranchers consider their grazing allotments on federal land a property right that cannot be revoked without just cause. But trust lands are a different creature, managed not for multiple use or public enjoyment but rather to maximize revenue for schools.

As southern Utah’s scenic lands become more valuable, SITLA has increasingly looked beyond grazing on its holdings that are rich in beauty. Sometimes they are sold to the highest bidder; other times they are developed or tapped for minerals.

The agency’s aggressive development posture has often angered environmentalists, tribes and neighboring property owners. But its willingness to evict longtime ranchers is now alienating conservative rural leaders who have long championed SITLA as a driver of economic development.

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