Land can serve multiple purposes for locals, from taking a leisurely hike to raising cattle for income. Khale Century Reno, executive director of Wyoming Wilderness Association, believes that must remain true to preserve open spaces.
“We must keep in check our ego as we look at how to strike that balance to keep ranches thriving and recreational users happy,” Century Reno said, adding that users must be asked to help take care of lands to prevent overuse issues.
One avenue that supports multi-use of land is permitting via the U.S. Forest Service. There is a large variety of Forest Service permits, according to Sara Evans Kirol, public affairs officer for the Bighorn National Forest. Common permits include grazing for livestock raisers, commercial for outfitters and recreational.
Stipulations vary between permits, Evans Kirol explained, but they all have similar requirements that permittees must adhere to federal laws and cannot cause resource damage, echoing Century Reno’s concern for responsible use of public land.
“The Forest Service is mandated by law to be a multi-use agency,” Evans Kirol said. “Multi-use is what the Forest Service does. We may have a project that is for vegetation management, but, within that, there may be wildlife habitat improvement or consideration of recreation for trail construction or trail decommissioning.”
Evans Kirol said a staff of people with diverse resource backgrounds consider decisions with a multi-use perspective to ensure all are brought to the table.
“We manage land and look at it from all points of view,” Evans Kirol said.
Red Grade Trails, managed by Sheridan Community Land Trust, are on both Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land, with Red Grade Road owned and maintained by Sheridan County. New construction planned will add 15 miles of trail on Forest Service land following a request approved by the Forest Service last spring.
While recreational permits such as Red Grade’s may be more visible to the public, the Forest Service also provides many agricultural permits.
“We play a role as a partner with livestock operators,” Evans Kirol said. “Utilizing the land expands their abilities to have a longer season where livestock can graze. A lot of folks are on lower elevations that may be too hot, or they may not have enough land. We can expand their land use.”
Evans Kirol described the agricultural permits as an “important partnership.”
“It’s been a long relationship with livestock owners ever since the beginning of the Forest Service in the early 1900s,” Evans Kirol said.
Irrigation is another type of agriculture-related permit. For example, Ditch Creek in Cloud Peak Reservoir holds a permit with the Forest Service; that irrigation water also allows for more grazing.
Evans Kirol said, within the Bighorn National Forest, there might be as many as 300 recreation resident permits for cabins alone and possibly 1,000 permits total.
Dana Kerns of Double Rafter Cattle Drives runs his business with two separate permits from the Forest Service. One allows him to graze his cattle on the mountain the other is an outfitter’s special-use permit for his cattle-drive business.
Kerns said renewing his permits is easy, but obtaining one is more challenging due to the criteria one has to meet. The permit must also be available, as permits are always attached to either stock or land. If someone forfeits their permit, it is turned back over to the Forest Service for the agency to reissue to a new permittee. Fortunately for Kerns, his family has operated permits for more than 100 years. The family was grazing on land before the Forest Service was even established. Kerns’ permits are good for 10 years.
The Forest Service sets the grazing season for each permit, which determines when livestock owners can run their stock on the land. Usually, grazing may begin in July, and stock must be off the land by Oct. 1. However, dates may shift due to factors such as precipitation levels or when grass begins to regrow in the spring.
“The Forest Service has the authority to change on and off dates because they can protect the forage to reach a certain state in development before it is grazed,” Kerns said, underlining Evans Kirol’s statement that permits must be regulated in such a way that prevents resource damage.
Permitting is a “very complex process,” Kerns continued. Sometimes his stock must go to a new pasture at a certain point of grazing or go home early.
Double Rafter Cattle Drives is completely dependent upon permits, Kerns said. He would “be out of business in 15 minutes” without them.
“Grass is a difficult commodity to find,” Kerns said. “It’s high-priced in the valley; most can’t afford to buy it. Leases are difficult to obtain.”
The alternative — leasing grazing land from private owners — is problematic for Kerns.
“Seldom do you get them on a long-term basis,” he explained.
With Forest Service permits, Kerns is assured that no one will lease the land out from under him or outbid him.
Kerns is grateful for his Forest Service permits, he said permitting with the government can create a contentious setting because the policies greatly affect his livelihood.
“It could be pretty easy to have a negative relationship, but you must avoid that at all costs,” Kerns said. “I try to take the approach that it’s not about whether you agree or not — you have to follow the law.”
While he has a good relationship with the Forest Service, Kerns would like to see the organization “be more proactive in their defense of the livestock raiser.”
“You can go camp or fish without a permit — you just have to buy a license,” Kerns said. “People pulling their fifth-wheel don’t have to pay [to use the land]. Livestock grazers are about the only ones who pay the Forest Service for use [of land] and pay additional fees to the Forest Service to operate their businesses. But a lot of times people point to us as getting a ‘freebie.’”
Kerns challenges anyone who thinks permit holders get a “freebie” by grazing on Forest Service allotment. He believes grazing on the mountain isn’t any cheaper than grazing down in the valley and cited higher death rates for cattle in the mountain as one reason.
About half of the land in Wyoming is federally managed, and Century Reno said the Forest Service permit system helps with using land for a variety of purposes while providing regulation.
“The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are understaffed with enforcing regulations and are also behind in maintaining trails,” Century Reno said. “This is where the public and groups like [Wyoming Wilderness Association] can help step in and offer to lend a hand. The public has a lot of opportunity to engage in discussions around public land.”
One such opportunity is attending Forest Service open houses that discuss proposed projects. There, voices like Century Reno’s, Kerns’ and Evans Kirol’s may find the multi-use balance that sustainably and fairly keeps public lands in public hands.