Idaho ranchers and county commissioners are eyeing a unique grazing program in Utah that has resulted in millions of dollars of improvements in range conditions and water quality in that state.
Created by the Utah Legislature in 2006, the Utah Grazing Improvement Program has enabled that state to team with the private sector and federal agencies to make about $25 million in rangeland improvements.
It has also assisted ranchers sued by environmental groups, a facet of the program that is of particular interest to Idaho cattle producers.
Troy Forrest, a grazing rangeland coordinator with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, explained the program to Idaho cattle producers recently during the Idaho Cattle Association's mid-year conference.
Though the legislature initially funded the program to the tune of $2 million annually, that amount has dropped to $1.4 million because of the economic recession, Forrest said. Still, he added, the program has been able to leverage the $10 million it has received from the state to generate another $15 million from private and federal sources.
The money has been used to make an extensive array of rangeland improvements, including installing fencing, seeding, managing brush, fighting invasive plant species and improving water quality and availability.
Forrest said about 50 percent of the program's funds are used on water improvement projects, including developing springs and wells and laying miles of pipeline to better distribute livestock, benefit wildlife and lessen impacts to riparian areas.
Program funds have been used to purchase equipment such as drills that are available for lease at a minimal price for range improvement projects.
Utah had its worst ever fire season in 2007 and program funds were used to reseed badly damaged areas.
The program partners with other land management agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service and "we've been able to affect public policy in that way," Forrest said.
Forrest said the program spends a lot of money on monitoring so when BLM allotments come up for renewal, "we have hard data that can be used in federal court to defend (the agency's) decisions."
The program has filed as intervenors on behalf of ranchers in some anti-grazing lawsuits and has also brought in experts to testify and submitted court briefs.
"We have good science to back up what we're doing," Forrest said.
He said federal grazing improvement programs are poorly funded and Utah lawmakers "saw a gaping hole where we could step in and help make improvements to public and private lands."
The presentation got the attention of Idaho Rep. Jim Guthrie, a Southeast Idaho rancher. He said such a program could benefit Idaho ranchers, though he added it's too early to speculate on whether the Idaho Legislature would create and fund such a program.
"Avoiding lawsuits may be the wrong reason for doing it, but taking care of the land is the right thing to do regardless of what motivates you to do it," he said. "I think any time the cattle industry can collectively work to improve range conditions, it's a good idea.