The day after he didn't get appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt dove back into grazing reform. At a U.S. Senate hearing in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 14, Babbitt told several hundred ranchers and environmentalists that he expects to "stay in the middle of this grazing issue until we work out something that we can all live with in the West."
His commitment met an equally firm stand from
the diverse group of Anglo, Hispanic and Indian ranchers and
environmentalists at the hearing: They refused to cooperate with
Babbitt or with each other.
sponsored by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on
Rangeland Reform, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., listened
to 10 invited speakers from all sides.
Agricultural economist John Fowler of New Mexico
State University said he objected to the several premises behind
the rangeland reform program: that rangelands are deteriorated and
getting worse; that permittees who graze cattle and sheep on public
lands are not doing an adequate job; and that reform will improve
David Henderson, New Mexico
Director of the National Audubon Society, countered that the state
is rapidly losing topsoil due to overgrazing and that over the last
100 years the Southwest has lost "over 90 percent of the riparian
Henderson said the latest range
reform proposal doesn't go far enough. He said it places "greater
emphasis' on keeping ranchers in business than it does on ecology.
And Jim Fish, president of Public Lands Action Network, charged
that the proposed fee structure, which doubles ranchers' costs over
three years, fails to cover federal administrative costs and
therefore amounts to public support of "wealthy welfare ranchers."
But Wesley Grau, president of the New Mexico
Cattle Growers, predicted that 1,550 of the state's 3,500 federal
lands permittees would go under as a result of the higher fees. And
Melvin Batista, speaking for 450 Navajo ranching families, warned
that failed ranchers would turn to welfare.
question of who would control on-the-ground decisions - when cattle
went on and off the public land, whether riparian areas were
fenced, how predators were dealt with - was also contentious. Susan
Schock, director of Gila Watch, stated that "local control by
ranchers has brought us to an ecological crisis." And Jim Fish said
decisions "have been excessively influenced by a small number of
individuals with the most personal gain at stake."
But Pete Gnatkowski, president of the New Mexico
Wool Growers Inc., said, "Those of us with the most at stake might
not even be represented."
co-director of the Hispanic sheep growers' group, Ganados del
Valle, warned of possible "range wars' in response to the
ever-intensifying pressure on ranching. Then she extended a
conditional offer to the anti-grazing contingent: "When the
environmental community exhibits as much concern for people as it
does for wildlife, bridges can be built."
response to the attacks on his proposal, Babbitt pointed to
successful consensus groups in Oregon and Colorado. "To those who
say we can't work together, I say simply, "Yes, you can." And I'm
going to be out here relentlessly ... trying to find reasonable
people on both sides, coaxing you, pushing you, shoving, because I
think this is the future of where it's gotta go in the West."
Deborah Begel is a
free-lance writer in Tierra Amarilla,