Study: Residents oppose wilderness designations

The results of a land use study indicate the majority of Moffat County residents favor multiple uses of federal land, and agree that federal land should not receive wilderness designations.

The study -- conducted by Donald McLeod, associate professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wyoming, and written by Andrew Seidl, associate professor of agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University -- was based on a questionnaire sent to 2,800 individuals who either own land or live in Moffat County.

Seidl presented the results to the Moffat County Board of Commissioners during a workshop on Dec. 22.

Commissioners said the study's results vindicated their belief that the people of Moffat County are not in support of wilderness designations for federal lands. But Reed Morris of the Colorado Wilderness Network said the survey was based on a misleading question that made the results dubious.

The first question on the survey asks, "Federal lands in Moffat County are being considered for a change in use designation from multiple use to monument or wilderness status. What do you think about federal land use in Moffat County?" Participants are then asked to rank their agreement with a list of statements, one meaning they strongly disagree and five meaning they strongly agree.

Morris said that question presents multiple land use and wilderness areas as a conflicting concepts, which is misleading to those taking the survey.

"It suggests to many an elimination of grazing," Morris said. "But the productive function of grazing can coexist with wilderness or monument designations."

Morris said he sees a need for the community to be educated about what wilderness means.

Grazing prohibited? No

Criteria for wilderness areas are based on the naturalness of an area, the solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation available in an area, and the ecological and geological qualities of an area. Lands are given wilderness designations as protection from development, to preserve their natural state.

Even though he works for the Colorado Wilderness Network, Reed said he too would answer that he strongly supports multiple use of federal land.

The survey categorized respondents as resident landowners, nonresident landowners, residents who do not own land, and nonresident nonlandowners.

When asked what the most popular commercial uses of federal lands were, both landowner groups cited livestock grazing. Grazing was the second most popular use among both nonlandowner groups.

In light of these answers, it seems probable that if survey participants believed grazing would be prohibited in wilderness areas, most people would be against wilderness.

Indeed, 61 percent of respondents stated they disagreed with the statement, "Additional BLM wilderness areas should be designated on federal lands in Moffat County." Only 21 percent of respondents agreed with this statement.

Neither Seidl nor McLeod could be reached for comment.

'All or nothing'

Livestock grazing is permitted in wilderness areas, Morris said. However, motorized equipment is prohibited in wilderness areas, which would necessarily prohibit oil, gas and mineral extraction also. Yet that was the third choice for land use among all groups.

When asked, "Suppose your access to public lands grazing is to be eliminated because of changes in your livestock grazing practices, such as finding grazing out of county, as leasing private lands or as increased feeding. By what percent would the loss of Moffat County federal grazing raise your production costs?" On average, respondents predicted a 26 percent increase in production costs. Both landowner groups predicted cost increases of 30 to 40 percent, saying they satisfied one-quarter of their grazing needs on federal lands.

"Quite frankly, I was astounded at the economic impact of the perceived threat of wilderness," Commissioner Les Hampton said.

But again, Morris takes exception with the conflicting manner in which this question is presented.

"They're presenting wilderness and grazing as an all or nothing thing," Morris said.

Only one question on the survey indicates that wilderness areas and livestock grazing are compatible. Sixty-three percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "Additional BLM wilderness areas should permit grazing."

Hampton said that four years ago, the commissioner board began asking the community about multiple land use, wilderness areas and "special interest perceptions."

"I was pretty convinced back then, people weren't in support of wilderness," Hampton said. "This reinforces my belief."

The study was a combined effort between Colorado State University and the University of Wyoming. Those universities received some grant money and approached the commissioners about doing a study. The commissioners indicated they were interested, and now say they are pleased with the results.

Hampton said the commissioners plan to ask Seidl to follow this study with some more research that would further explore the economic impact wilderness designations for federal lands would have on the county.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.