Hope Behind a Fence?

photo by Thomas Meinzen

photo by Thomas Meinzen

Dispatch by Thomas Meinzen

A twisted wire fence lies prostrate in the mud, the bare, clipped stems of gooseberry and invasive Kentucky bluegrass clinging to hummocks of soil between dark, hoofprint-shaped pools. This is the scene at Spring 169, one of forty sites of natural groundwater upwelling recently surveyed in the Manti-La Sal National Forest of southern Utah.

Springs are havens for a variety of water-dependent species, including twenty percent of the country’s endangered species, according to the Spring Stewardship Institute. Springs are also sacred sites for native peoples, playing an important role in the culture and religion of local tribes. Supporting fourth fifths of the forest’s biota with their life-giving water, springs make up only two percent of its area, a portion that is shrinking each year as climate change, mining, and development lowers the water table and drains springs dry. 

The springs that remain flowing against such odds face an equally potent adversary upon reaching the surface: cattle. Cattle’s water-consumptive digestive systems predispose them to lengthy sojourns in riparian areas and springs, resulting in the trampling and denuding of delicate spring vegetation. Thus treated, springs can no longer provide the habitat necessary for wildlife and pollinators to survive the increasing warmth and aridity brought by anthropogenic climate change.

Despite their detrimental effects on springs and riparian areas, cattle are ubiquitous on the Manti-La Sal National Forest, over 95 percent of which contains active grazing allotments. Since 1897, the Forest Service’s policy has been to maintain grazing on all forest land deemed suitable, even denying the ability of permit-purchasing conservation organizations to retire allotments from grazing.  This entrenched bias towards public grazing includes government subsidies that make grazing permits on public land eight times cheaper than those on private land. Touted as central to supporting community livelihoods and the Western beef industry, the statistics of public grazing are often ignored. In fact, only three percent of consumer beef comes from Western public lands grazing, and the largest permit-holder in Utah is no community rancher, but an urban millionaire from California. It seems clear that public lands grazing is no longer achieving the objectives for which it has been so heavily favored in federal policies, yet the laws remain resistant to change.

Though public lands grazing may remain embedded in Forest Service policy, not all springs in the Manti-La Sal National Forest are embedded with cattle hoof-prints. At Deer Spring, clear water bubbles up from a grassy knoll, gnarled willows stretching twiggy fingers toward a tumbling, wildflower-framed stream. This spring owes its prime condition to a sturdy wooden fence enclosing its source, excluding cattle from entry. Fences such as this one typically owe their existence to Forest Service funds, permittee labor, and pressure from nonprofits such as the Grand Canyon Trust and the public to protect springs.

Due to grazing, the verdant natural beauty of Deer Spring is becoming a rare occurrence. Yet by demanding adequate spring fencing and continuing to push for legislative change, an informed public could reverse that trend. Despite the odds, there’s hope yet for springs in the Manti-La Sal—even if it’s hope behind a fence.