The Old West tradition of using national forest lands for grazing isn't completely dead in the Roaring Fork Valley, but it could be on its last gasp.
For the first half of the 20th century, the Forest Service's primary duty in the Roaring Fork River basin was to manage the range for livestock grazing and, to a lesser extent, oversee timber sales.
Now, instead of supervising the grazing of large flocks of sheep on Independence Pass and huge herds of cattle in nearly all the lower-elevation drainages, the Forest Service is focused on protecting natural resources in the wake of an expanding number of recreationalists. (Oil and gas development has emerged in the past decade as a leading issue on the west side of the White River National Forest.)
The decline in the use of forest lands for grazing mirrors the slow decline in the overall health of ranching in the Roaring Fork Valley. As Aspen built its reputation as a world-class resort and land prices soared, many ranchers discovered they could get richer selling their land for real estate development than by spending years wrangling cattle.
Declining number of grazing permits
As a result, the demand for grazing allotments has plummeted in the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts, which combine to total about 720,000 acres.
“At the present time, there are approximately 202,000 acres of the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts open to domestic livestock grazing. In 1985, there were nearly 100,000 more acres open to grazing than there are now,” said Wayne Ives, the range technician on the two districts since the early 1980s.
“The number of permittees has definitely declined,” he added.
Sheep grazing used to be prevalent in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. Aspen native Stirling “Buzz” Cooper, 80, recalls Bleeker Street being used as a route to take sheep from west of town to the railroad depot, which was located near what is now Rio Grande Park.
Cooper also recalled cattle being grazed as far up as the Weller Cut on Independence Pass when he was a kid. His family lived in a cabin east of Aspen. His mother got upset when the cattle were driven down in the fall one year and trampled the family garden and yard.
Even into the mid-1980s, there were two herds of sheep grazing in the Aspen area, one in Grizzly Creek and another in East Snowmass Creek. There were four herds using the Marble area for summer pasture, Ives said.
The number of sheep grazing permits issued by the Forest Service for the Aspen and Sopris districts fell from five in 1987 to one in 2011. The last remaining herd grazes on public lands in the Marble area. A typical herd had about 1,000 head of sheep, Ives said.
The number of cattle grazing permits in the Aspen and Sopris districts fell from 28 in to 16 in 2011.
Conflicts contribute to decline
The grazing allotments range in size from 2,000 acres for 46 cow-calf units permitted to 32,000 acres with nearly 1,000 cows with calves. The fee, set by Congress, varies with beef prices. It cannot be lower than $1.35 per cow and calf per month.
Ives said grazing allotments have historically been held by the same families for generations or have carried over with different owners of a piece of property. When a ranch surrenders an allotment, it often expires these days because there are so few ranches remaining in the valley.
Ranchers face additional challenges. Some national environmental groups oppose grazing on federal lands because of the degradation to streambeds, water quality and natural pastures. Other groups complain that the fee that is charged is too low and amounts to a subsidy for ranchers. In the Roaring Fork Valley, there are conflicts between cows, climbers, cyclists and hikers.
Ives noted that cows and backpackers both are attracted to Capitol Lake, which is a popular base for climbers going up Capitol Peak, one of Colorado's mountains above 14,0000 feet. Camping spots are highly coveted around the breath-takingly beautiful lake.
“People don't expect to see cattle there,” Ives said.
Grazing patterns get messed up
Carbondale rancher Tom Turnbull has held grazing permit on federal lands for more than 50 years. Lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management aren't really the land of many users any longer, as once billed, he said. Mountain biking has become a dominate use outside of designated Wilderness, where motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited.
“Look at the impact that it's had in areas like the Crown,” Turnbull said, referring to BLM land between the Roaring Fork River and Mount Sopris in the midvalley. The Crown has become a hot spot for mountain biking in the last decade.
“All the good main cattle trails have turned into bike trails,” Turnbull said.
His beef with biking is the effect it has on grazing patterns. The key to effective grazing is to spread the herd over the entire allotment. When cyclists regularly ride through lands used by cattle, it tends to encourage the animals to congregate.
Rory Cerise has helped move his cattle up from his family's ranch in Emma to the Crown for more than four decades. His family has held a grazing right up there since 1944. He has witnessed the effects of the recreation boom on his family's operation. Hikers and bikers on the Crown often leave gates open, forcing Cerise to track straying cows. He's also witnessed equestrians chasing cattle, considering it harmless sport.
Conflicts became so bad on Basalt Mountain, another popular mountain biking site, that the permit holder asked the Forest Service to allow greater utilization of nearby lands in Cattle Creek. The allotment on Basalt Mountain hasn't been used for a few years.
“The permittee just didn't want to fight the battles anymore,” Ives said.
Grazing still big in Rifle, Meeker
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the forest used to be “one giant pasture.” While livestock grazing has declined in the Aspen, Vail and Summit county areas, it still thrives in the Rifle Ranger District and Meeker's Rio Blanco Ranger Districts.
In 2010, Fitzwilliams' office issued permits for 16,270 cattle and 43,290 sheep on 92 grazing allotments throughout the forest. The White River collected $103,917 for grazing permits.
Fitzwilliams said he believes it is important for the forest to continue to provide summer grazing lands to help keep the ranching industry economically viable. The private lands of the ranches provide the public benefits of open space, wildlife habitat and checks on urban sprawl.
“I see it well into the future. Public land grazing is going to be part of the West,” Fitzwilliams said.
How much it remains a part of the Aspen and Sopris districts after the current generation of ranchers retire remains to be seen.