Watersheds Messenger     Summer 2001     Vol. VIII, No. 2     PDF ISSUE


Camping (and Coping) With cow Poop
By Ginger Harmon

What smells worse to a backcountry hiker than cow poop? What causes more water pollution than cow poop? What is more disgusting in a beautiful place than cow poop?

A dead cow lying rotten and bloated smells far worse and is surely more disgusting than cow poop.

At the trailhead for The Gulch, a major tributary of the Escalante River, a Bureau of Land Management sign announces to hikers that they are about to enter "The Gulch Outstanding Natural Area."

The sign is a lie.

Is it possible to have an outstanding natural area when it has a ubiquitous cover of cow manure? The Gulch could be an area of outstanding natural beauty. A year-round stream is encased by sheer sandstone walls of every shade of red. Huge cottonwoods stand tall, their green leaves providing sharp contrast to the colorful cliffs. Indian sites abound, from lithic scatters to rock art panels to granaries to cliff dwellings.

The reality, though, is that The Gulch is an ongoing cow catastrophe. Soil-holding grasses and sedges have been grazed to stubble. The streambed is shallow and wide and often muddy, the result of cow hooves trampling and eroding the banks. Exotic weeds have invaded where native ground cover has been stripped away. Cow pies are everywhere.

The Gulch should have been named "Outstanding Area of Cow Devastation."

Cattle leave about 50 pounds of defecation behind them every day, not to mention a couple gallons of urine. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a manure-free place to set up a tent in The Gulch. Worse for backpackers, poop that is deposited into water carries all manner of little critters harmful to humans, such as giardia and e-coli.

In 1992, after visiting The Gulch and witnessing the ugly scars of cattle abuse and overuse, I became an "Interested Public" on The Gulch grazing allotment. As such, I have monitored the condition of the allotment and the actions (or lack of actions) of the BLM regarding the allotment. I have tried by begging, threatening, pleading and coercion to make the BLM do what the rules and regulations say the agency is required to do. I have seldom been successful.

On March 26, 1997, a dead cow was reported in the stream flowing through The Gulch. What followed is a typical example of the BLM's failure to take positive action where and when it is needed and, in fact, required.

The allotment permittee was told that he had to remove the cow immediately. In a letter to the permittee, the BLM stated: "Leaving a cow in the stream and not properly disposing of it is not only in violation of the federal regulations, it is also in violation of state laws."

The permittee did absolutely nothing about the dead cow. More than a month later, on May 2, he was warned: "If this cow is not removed from the stream and properly disposed of by May 10, citations will be issued and administrative actions may be taken against your grazing permit."

The cow was not removed. On May 12, two BLM range technicians disposed of the cow. The action required 16 hours of labor, one horse trailer, one pickup truck and two horses - your tax dollars at work. No citations were issued.

In the past nine years I have seen repeated transgressions by public lands permittees. I have witnessed repeated capitulations by the BLM. The BLM is, putatively, the steward of our public lands, yet the agency allows egregious abuse of the land. The Escalante area, including The Gulch, is a candidate for Wilderness designation. We cannot let it be trampled and destroyed by cattle.

One can still hike in The Gulch, though it is not a pleasurable experience. If you keep a bandana over your nose and your eyes on the slick-rock cliffs above, you might have a somewhat satisfying backcountry experience.

Then again, you might trip and take an unfortunate fall on a decomposing bovine carcass.

Things must change.

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