NPS Continues Abuses, Land Condemnation Tactics

Colorado Family: Feds Using ‘Aggressive, Relentless’ Effort to Force Sale of Ranch

During World War I, Charley Mantle served his country in the U.S. Cavalry. After the war, the U.S. government encouraged veterans to help settle the country’s vast western frontier. They offered each veteran a 160-acre “homestead” in rugged wilderness.

And because 160 acres was not nearly enough to raise cattle, the government gave veterans the right to lease additional land to graze their livestock. Those grazing rights were guaranteed to veterans and their heirs forever.

So when Mantle got out of the Army in 1919, he decided to homestead a nice, quiet spot in Hell’s Canyon in northwestern Colorado, far from the maddening crowd. There, he thought, he and his heirs could live peacefully without ever being bothered by anybody.

He was wrong.

Federal Land Grab

The Mantles’ troubles began in 1960, when Congress expanded the Dinosaur National Monument (DNM). Originally consisting of 80 acres near Jensen, Utah, the monument's boundaries now spread into Colorado and encompassed the entire Mantle Ranch.

Tim Mantle, Charley’s son, said at the time, the family was assured that their property’s inclusion in the monument would cause them no problems.

“I can remember our U.S. senator standing on the steps of our front porch and promising us that we didn’t have to worry about our grazing rights,” said Tim Mantle. “At that time, we still thought a politician’s word meant something.”

A letter to Charley Mantle from the DNM superintendent in April of 1961 reinforced the senator’s promise. It said the law “assures the status of grazing privileges...We assure you the grazing of domestic stock within the Monument will be administered in a fair and unbiased manner.”

But Tim Mantle recalls that just a few years later, a new park superintendent offered to buy the Mantles land for about half of what the family thought it was worth.

The Mantles turned down the offer. They thought that was the end of it.

Only recently, when they obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), did they realize how determined the government had been for almost forty years to get their hands on the Mantle Ranch.

The Mantles discovered a 1964 intra-office National Park Service memo that states, “in the event that the owner [Mantle] refuses to sell the lands to the government at the offering price, it is recommended that the property be acquired by condemnation with a declaration of taking.”

That’s when the Park Service began what Mrs. Renee Daniels-Mantle, Tim Mantle’s niece, refers to as an “aggressive and relentless effort” to force the Mantles to become “willing sellers.”

The 1960 legislation that expanded DNM said the government could not withdraw the Mantles’ grazing privileges on federally-owned leased land “except for [the Mantles’] failure to comply with the regulations applicable.”

So the Park Service began a process that a judge recently termed “regulatory whittling.”

Based on a decision that grazing cattle is an “incompatible use” inside the monument’s boundaries, the Service created regulations with which the Mantles could not possibly comply.

National Park Service Employs Questionable Tactics

A 1979 Land Acquisition Plan, for example, declared that “incompatible uses” included virtually everything a cattle ranch needs to survive—things like stock ponds, barns, storage buildings, roads, “the cultivation or irrigation of a meadow or pasture,” even building additions.

“We can’t even build an addition to our own house,” said Tim Mantle, who inherited the ranch after his father, Charley, died in 1968 at the age of 75.

More recently, a Park Service regulation declared that no longer would anybody except family members be allowed to use the road to their ranch.

Mantle recalls that in 1982 he received a letter from the Park Service saying it wanted to release a herd of antelope to the west of the family’s property. The Park Service asked Mantle if he had any objection.

“I wrote back and said, as long as it’s on your property, I don’t have much to say about it. Just make sure the antelope don’t come on our property,” Mantle said.

But according to Mantle, the Park Service released the antelope on the family’s land anyway. The Mantles were upset, but didn’t feel they could do anything about it.

Only recently, through the FOIA, did the Mantles discover that the Park Service intentionally released the antelope on their land as part of an effort to build a land condemnation court case against them.

What they discovered was an intra-agency memo dated October 15, 1982.

In answer to a suggestion from a park employee on how to reduce the number of cattle the Mantles were allowed to graze, the park superintendent stated, “Recommend we get antelope on [Mantle property] first. Then build case for court” by conducting a “survey” to “show an overgrazing problem.”

But what upsets both Daniels-Mantle and her uncle the most is that they are under constant surveillance.

Through the FOIA, the family has obtained copies of portions of “The Mantle Log,” a hand-written, hour-by hour journal that Park Service employees have kept over the years to record activity in an apparent effort to find some reason to revoke the Mantles’ grazing permit.

Here’s a sample log entry dated June 5, 1996, 2:10 p.m.: “Blue flatbed truck and dark blue or black sport utility vehicle stopped on Yampa Bench Road across from new 2-track where new sign is planted just east of Mantle Cave overlook. They paused, then drove on. Sign still in place.”

“There are laws against stalking,” said Mantle. “Sometimes we feel like we’re being stalked.”

Mantle Family Sues Park Service

In 1994, the Mantles finally decided to sue the Park Service to establish their rights. The legal battle took four years and cost them almost $400,000 according to Daniels-Mantle.

The judge in the case ruled that “if the intent of Congress is to restore DNM and the adjacent properties belonging to Mantle to [preserve DNM in its original state], it must do so by budgeting the necessary funds to condemn such properties, rather than taking the property rights by a process of regulatory whittling.”

The judge ordered the Mantles and the Park Service to try to agree on a purchase price. This time, according to Mantle, the Service’s appraisal of the property was about one-fifth of the amount listed on a different appraisal, paid for by the family.

The judge also gave the Mantles permission for some water development projects to provide water for their cattle.

Last November, however, after the Mantles had completed the projects, the Park Service decided to “evaluate the condition of several riparian (land adjacent to the bank of a river, lake or pond) areas within the Mantle grazing allotment,” according to a memo dated November 2, 2000. Not surprisingly, the Park Service concluded that the projects “had adverse impacts on riparian resources.”

The November memo also hints that the Endangered Species Act may soon come into play. The memo claims the cattle caused extensive damage to “rare plant species,” including one that has been designated by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program as “critically imperiled.”

“Whatever the buzz word of the day is, that’s what they use,” said Daniels-Mantle.

Park Service Denies Trying to ‘Force Family Off Their Ranch’

In spite of all the evidence the Mantles have gathered, DNM Park Superintendent Dennis Ditmanson, who has been in his job only since June of 1997, insists the Park Service is not trying to force the Mantles to become “willing sellers.”

“I have seen no indication of efforts to force the family off their ranch,” Ditmanson said, while also admitting that one of the Park Service’s goals is to eliminate cattle grazing on national park land.

Cattle, according to Ditmanson, are considered an “exotic species” because they are not native to the area and are therefore “in conflict with the Park Service’s mission,” which is to “preserve resources in a condition unimpaired for future generations,” he said.

While acknowledging that the Park Service does intend to either purchase or condemn the ranch, he said the Service and the Mantles simply have “a different point of view.”

Because of the cost of the court battle and the restrictions on their cattle operation, the Mantles have been forced to find other ways to make ends meet.

Ditmanson—for whom both Mantle and Daniels-Mantle have nothing but praise—has granted them a one-year permit to take visitors on week-long trips through the rugged countryside on the ranch.

Daniels-Mantle testified last month at a House Resources Committee hearing in Washington D.C. regarding the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would set up a guaranteed trust fund of more than $45 billion for private property acquisition and other government projects.

She said she wanted to let the members know “a little bit what life is like today in rural Western America.”

She later said her trip east brought her the understanding that “It’s not that people are deliberately unsympathetic; it’s just that they have no idea of what’s going on.”

Proponents of CARA assure private property advocates that funds provided by the act could be used to purchase property only from “willing sellers.”

CARA opponents believe the Mantle Ranch is a good example of what the term “willing seller” means.

The House Resources Committee is scheduled to vote on CARA Wednesday.