Bruce Babbitt is proving himself a good, and possibly very smart, loser.


In his first year as secretary of Interior, Babbitt has seen his plans for grazing and other land-use reforms blocked in the U.S. Congress, and a ground swell of opposition started in the rural West.


Now, trying to douse the flames of a second Sagebrush Rebellion, the secretary is canvassing the region. With Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, Babbitt spent the past seven Wednesdays in Colorado hammering out alternative grazing reforms with a group of 16 ranchers, environmentalists and local officials.


The secretary also flew to Idaho, Utah, Oregon and twice to Nevada to talk with hand-picked groups of ranchers and environmentalists. As scores of spectators - mostly ranchers - looked on, Babbitt repeatedly pledged that the administration will listen and change its approach. Additional trips are planned to Wyoming, New Mexico and other states.


Babbitt seems to be shifting tactics. Faced with a certain lawsuit from ranchers over his initial Rangeland Reform "94 package, the secretary is easing off the strict bureaucratic controls he first proposed. In Grand Junction, Colo., for example, Babbitt announced he would drop plans for detailed national standards governing all aspects of range management. They included everything from placement of salt licks to fencing riparian areas.


Instead, Babbitt endorsed a new consensus process being developed in Colorado. It puts much of the responsibility and the specifics for improving public rangelands into the hands of local citizen advisory councils, instead of federal bureaucrats.


In an interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Frank Clifford, Babbitt conceded, "I was a big believer in the New West kind of theory," referring to the idea that the region is filling up with urban exiles who want to see the landscape restored to what it was before grazing, mining, clearcutting and dam building.





"I thought this time it might be easier to get things done. The Western press, the economic community, a lot of people seemed to be in favor of it. But obviously that was not entirely the case."





Babbitt's willingness to talk compromise has unnerved much of the national environmental community.





"Secretary Babbitt has taken a beating in the Western press and now he's trying to mend fences," says Jim Norton, Southwest regional director for The Wilderness Society. "As a result we may lose any chance at significant grazing reform."


Some Westerners, however, say the new approach could improve the chances for grazing reform. They say Babbitt's mistake was not in underestimating the desire for reform, but in picking the wrong fight with the wrong people.


Rangeland Reform "94 focused on grazing fees, water rights, tenure, subleasing and other high-profile political issues that some local activists say would have had little impact on the ground. Even worse, by backing Nevada Sen. Harry Reid's grazing bill, the administration ended up making its pitch for reform in the U.S. Senate (HCN, 11/15/93).





"We have a lot of U.S. senators from Western cow states that kowtow to the cattlemen," says Idaho Governor and former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus. "They were afraid for their political lives."


Babbitt should never have gotten involved in a shooting match between the Senate and the House over grazing fees, Andrus adds. "I told him last spring he should worry more about how to manage and protect the resources ... like finding ways to give incentives for good stewardship."


Idaho environmental activist Pat Ford agrees. The cattlemen's passionate resistance made great copy in the papers, says Ford. But, there was little for environmentalists to sink their teeth into.





"The pressure for public-land grazing reform in Idaho is homegrown," says Ford. "But we're not into phony alerts," referring to the urgent letters conservation groups mail to activate their members.


While the administration's attempt at a political solution on grazing fizzled, the fiasco may not stop or even delay reform.


In the courts and on the ground, environmental groups in the West have gained momentum by challenging federal grazing plans, forest by forest and allotment by allotment.


After a five-year struggle and two appeals, law professor Joe Feller recently won a sweeping ruling that will immediately stop grazing in five canyons in southeast Utah (see story on next page).


A similar campaign by conservationists, anglers and hunters in Idaho is forcing the Forest Service to remove two-thirds of the cattle grazed on the Stanley Basin allotment in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. That decision ends a bitter three-year fight (HCN, 6/1/92).





"Stanley Basin is the biggest grazing fight in Idaho," says Pat Ford, "and the Forest Service EIS drew hundreds of letters from Idaho conservationists and sportsmen who supported the cuts."


Likewise, Idaho environmentalists recently achieved an out-of-court settlement with electronics giants and hobby ranchers William Hewlett and David Packard on the 90,000-acre San Felipe allotment near Challis, Idaho (HCN, 12/13/93).


High-profile battles also continue on the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, the Toiyabe in Nevada, the Beaverhead in Montana and elsewhere.


The second approach to change comes from collaboratives. In Gunnison, Colo., eastern Oregon, northern Arizona and elsewhere, ranchers, environmentalists, fishermen and federal land managers are conducting range experiments that have restored riparian areas, increased vegetation and wildlife, and generated new trust and understanding between ranchers and environmentalists.





In the challenges to grazing plans or in the collaboratives, environmentalists are asking the tough questions that Babbitt, Clinton or even avowed environmentalist and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, George Miller, could never bring up in Washington - questions that gore the West's sacred cow: "Is this ground suitable for grazing in the first place?" or "How does grazing affect recreation and other uses of the public land?"


As indicated in the recent Comb Wash case, judges may start answering those questions. Fearing that the courts may take over policy making as they took over timber, some Western ranchers are stepping into the leadership vacuum created by the refusal of the national cattle industry and the Senate to consider grazing reform or fee increases.





"The future of our industry is at stake in how this is resolved," says Gunnison rancher Ken Spann. He bucked the state and national cattlemen's associations to negotiate with neighboring environmentalists last summer, and he is now a leading voice in the Colorado group working with Babbitt to devise an alternative grazing reform plan.





"We need to take a longer-term view," Spann adds. "It seems to me that the most effective way to make real progress with the conditions on the ground and real progress in converting the West into a society that will work together for its own benefit, is to take the controversy out of it."


Spann and other ranchers in the Colorado working group have cut through the industry's defensive rhetoric, agreeing that reform and even higher grazing fees are necessary. More importantly, the Colorado ranchers have agreed to dismantle the system that for the last century has given ranchers almost absolute control over public rangelands.


The Colorado model would disband the Bureau of Land Management's rancher-dominated grazing advisory boards and replace them with multiple use advisory councils in each state. The councils would consist of 15 members appointed by the governor and secretary of Interior representing all public-land users, and would help with federal land planning and policy decisions.


On a local level, the Colorado model calls for smaller rangeland resource councils for each national forest and BLM resource area. Five members - two grazing permittees, an environmentalist, a wildlife or recreation representative and a citizen-at-large - would monitor range conditions, set goals, work with the agency to develop grazing allottment plans and oversee a small budget.


All council members would attend rangeland ecosystem schools to study range management, ecology, federal environmental laws and communication skills. While they would not have to live near the grazing area, they would have to demonstrate that they know it well. Staff members of environmental and industry groups would be barred.


The boards would work by consensus, but both groups and individuals would have the right to appeal range decisions. There is one caveat. "We're willing to share the table," Spann says. But if "some environmentalist from New Jersey" wants to appeal a range plan, he adds, he or she must have been part of the process from the beginning.





Some ranchers believe the consensus process will enable them to survive the inevitable reforms. Reeves Brown, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, faxes new developments to other state livestock associations on a weekly basis. "I tell them this is a lot better for everybody than what we had on the table before," says Brown.


While the idea has drawn cautious support in other states, Brown says most ranchers and other livestock associations do not yet trust Babbitt. Environmental groups are also cautious, noting that local control is what gave the West overgrazing, clearcutting, dam building and overdevelopment.


The Wilderness Society's Jim Norton warns that Babbitt is enmeshing himself in a Byzantine process with local boards. "He should move forward and publish regulations as he promised to do in early November," says Norton.


Gary Sprung, director of the Crested Butte-based High Country Citizens Alliance and a member of the Colorado working group, argues that simply vesting more power in the BLM won't work. Sprung says the problem with grazing is not a lack of good regulations.





"Conditions are there in every grazing permit, but we've never revoked a permit for bad stewardship in Colorado," says Sprung. "Babbitt's reforms would have done nothing to reform the BLM's culture, nor the ranching culture. We need to come from within, to influence their hearts and minds."


Sprung says while it is easy for his and other local environmental groups to accept strong local influence, it's harder for the national environmental groups. However, Maggie Fox of the Sierra Club and Tom Dougherty of the National Wildlife Federation, who have participated in the Colorado sessions, say that after watching the process, they would back local resource boards. But they support the boards only as a Colorado experiment, and only in combination with better regulations.


Fox, who communicates with environmentalists throughout the West and in Washington on a weekly basis, says anxiety over the Colorado approach is easing. "The question is, even if we have fabulous regulations, ones that we wrote verbatim, will the range improve as quickly as it would if you got ranchers to buy into the process at the start?" asks Fox.


Like the ranchers, Sprung, Fox and other environmentalists say they will wait for the next round of proposals from Babbitt.





A new set of draft regulations and a draft environmental impact statement is due out by early March. Interior spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna says the Colorado process will be a key component.





"The secretary has decided that the only way range reform will really work and have a lasting effect is if there is consensus on the ground," says Hanna. "We will build into the options in the draft EIS and the new draft regulations as much local incentive to buy into this as possible."


Babbitt also seems intent on keeping the proposal away from Congress. He has promised two sets of public hearings in every Western state, and says he will continue to work with ranchers and environmentalists throughout the region.


To get on the mailing list for the new draft regulations, write the Department of Land and Renewable Resources, U.S. Department of Interior, BLM, P.O. Box 65800, Washington, DC 20035-9998.





Steve Hinchman is HCN's staff reporter.