Report: Two Counties Use State Funds for Individuals' Grazing Permit Lawsuits

Report: Two Counties Use State Funds for Individuals' Grazing Permit Lawsuits

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Two southern Utah counties that the state gave $50,000 to fight grazing issues in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument have handed over some of it to three ranchers trying to take grazing permits from an environmental group, according to a newspaper report.

The state board that granted the money isn't supposed to finance legal actions or benefit private parties. One of the ranchers is a county commissioner and another the son-in-law of a legislator from Kanab who helped procure the $50,000, The Salt Lake Tribune reported in its Sunday editions.

The money came from the Permanent Community Impact Board Fund, which distributes mineral-lease royalties collected from oil, gas and coal production on federal lands. According to its own statutory mandate, the board can distribute money only for the construction and maintenance of public facilities, for the provision of public services and for planning.

"There is an old opinion from the Attorney General's Office that said legal costs would not be eligible," said Keith Burnett, manager of the fund, which annually doles out about $25 million.

When Garfield and Kane counties applied for a $50,000 grant -- saying they needed it for "lawsuits against the federal government regarding grazing" in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument -- the board denied the request.

But board members agreed the counties' cause was "worthy" and directed the counties to submit a proposal for "alternate eligible projects of roughly the same dollar value," according to the board's minutes.

Garfield County then submitted a request for $25,000 for planning. Kane County submitted a request for $25,000 to purchase vehicles for the office of the county assessor. The board granted the requests in its July meeting.

Board director Dick Bradford defended the board's actions. "We try to maintain a lot of flexibility to help an applicant get to the resources they need without prostituting our own guidelines and policies," Bradford said.

Meanwhile, the law offices of Karen Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne, Wyo.-based attorney who has made a career of taking on the federal government on behalf of ranchers, has prepared appeals that will be presented to the Interior Department's Office of Hearings and Appeals in Salt Lake City. No hearing date has been scheduled.

To date, Garfield and Kane counties have paid Budd-Falen $15,506 to assist the southern Utah ranchers, said Kane County Clerk Karla Johnson. Dodds said the money, though going toward private attorney fees, is for the public good, to preserve the rural economy.

The ranchers' legal target is Canyonlands Grazing Corp., an affiliate of the Flagstaff, Ariz.-based Grand Canyon Trust.

Trust attorney Cullen Battle -- who has won grazing cases for the Nature Conservancy in U.S. District Court and the U.S. Supreme Court -- said he plans to intervene in the ranchers' appeals to protect the Grand Canyon Trust's investment.

Battle said the ranchers were "a bunch of pirates ... (who) are using public money to fund a private hit job on our permits. If they win -- and they won't -- they will walk away with permits we paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for."

The trust in recent years has spent more than $600,000 purchasing grazing permits in four allotments inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established by President Clinton in 1996. The trust's objective is to reduce or end grazing in areas where it harms the monument's other values.

Fund manager Burnett said the board had been under some pressure from the 2003 Legislature, which passed intent language in the appropriations bill suggesting the board grant $50,000 to Garfield and Kane counties.

While such intent language is nonbinding, "you ignore it at your own peril," said Burnett.

Several key members of the Legislature are from rural Utah and are sympathetic to anti-monument sentiment in Garfield and Kane counties. Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, and Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, wrote the intent language.

Noel's son-in-law, Trevor Stewart, is one of the three ranchers appealing recent grazing decisions by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a 1.9 million-acre reserve that straddles the two counties.

Noel said that when he crafted the intent language, he thought the money was going to be used to fund a lawsuit by the counties against the BLM on the grazing issue. To date, no lawsuit has been filed.

Noel denied any knowledge of his son-in-law's legal battle, saying, "That's his own personal business."

Stewart -- along with Escalante ranchers Wayne Phillips and Dell LeFevre, a Garfield County commissioner -- asked the BLM last year to grant them grazing permits held by the Canyonlands Grazing Corp.

In January, after conducting environmental assessments on grazing allotments obtained by Grand Canyon Trust, the BLM ruled that the environmental group could end or reduce grazing in those allotments despite objections from rural leaders and other ranchers not directly associated with the Grand Canyon Trust's transactions.

Garfield County Commission Chairman D. Maloy Dodds -- who sits on the Community Impact Board but did not vote on the $50,000 -- characterized the dealings between BLM and Grand Canyon Trust as a "conspiracy" to end grazing in the monument.

"We have a lot of people's livings made on public lands," Dodds said. "We want those lands made available to viable ranchers. If the Grand Canyon Trust is a viable rancher, good. ... But we don't think they are."

In September, the BLM denied the ranchers' requests to obtain the trust's permits. On Oct. 30, they appealed that denial, arguing the environmental group is not a legitimate ranching operation.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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