Every time Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stood at a podium in the West during the last two years to talk about grazing reform, it seemed he faced a sea of cowboy hats. Now, with his Rangeland Reform "94 program failing in a Republican Congress, the West's 28,000 public-lands ranchers are riding taller in the political saddle every day.


The last straw may have been Babbitt's decision just before Christmas to all but abandon his controversial plan to double federal grazing fees. He said the new Congress would have to decide on the fees, and he delayed approving his remaining grazing reform regulations for six months to let Congress vote on them.


His decision may finally kill a reform effort that has survived a long string of Clinton administration concessions to the livestock industry and Western politicians. Babbitt's staff portrayed his latest action as a tactical retreat, aimed at clearing away the emotional, divisive issue of grazing fees so his other reforms could get a full airing. Ranching interests say they're still preparing for a fight, including a possible lawsuit on the Rangeland Reform final environmental impact statement that came out this month.


Without the fee increase, "It really becomes not an economic question, but a good-government question, an attempt to reinvent the way we do business," said Steve Richardson, Interior's assistant director for external affairs. "The fee issue has been troublesome for the last 88 years and we will have not solved it."


Another Interior source, however, said, "My sense is that it (the entire reform package) is kind of done for. The window of opportunity is closed down. The Republicans are in the mood not to negotiate."


"It's dead," agreed Jim Baca, Babbitt's ex-Bureau of Land Management chief who now works for The Wilderness Society. "Babbitt has given everything away and there's nothing else to give."


In 1993, opposition from ranchers and Western senators forced Babbitt and the Clinton administration to back off on a stiffer fee increase, then to abandon proposed national standards for how ranchers treat the range.


Instead came a system of consensus, in which local committees of ranchers, environmentalists and public officials would set standards tailored to their region. But this system triggered environmentalist charges of a sellout, and ranchers kept up their opposition. They filed lawsuits, packed public hearings and contended that the fee increases would put them out of business. Interior Department studies asserted that the higher fees would only cost the typical rancher $1,000 per year; ranching interests pegged the cost at $7,000 per year.


"The bottom line is that the industry's basic tactic of resisting change has served them well, at least politically," said Johanna Wald, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney in Washington, D.C. "I think the only answer I have as to why that works is because of the Marlboro Man syndrome and the place of the cowboy in American culture and myth."


Environmentalists such as Silver City, N.M., activist Susan Schock of Gila Watch, and Cathy Carlson of the National Wildlife Federation, pointed to the connection between banking and ranching. Grazing permits can serve as collateral on bank loans, and below-market grazing fees artificially prop up permit values.


Brad Little, a politically active Idaho rancher, said that many ranchers around the West sought help from their loan officers, who testified before Babbitt. Bill Myers, director of the ranching-oriented Public Lands Council in Washington, D.C., noted that the ranchers drew support not just from bankers, but from rural county commissioners, mayors and school board members concerned about the possible loss of grazing fee payments to local governments if the fee increase put ranchers out of business.


Myers and Kent Briggs, director of regional programs at the Denver-based Center for the New West, contended that Babbitt misread how far the rapidly growing West would support cracking down on ranchers.


While Babbitt and environmentalists hoped that city residents would come out strong to protect streams for hikers and fishermen, Myers and Briggs said these residents wanted to preserve ranching, both out of respect for the ranchers' lifestyle and to keep condominiums from rising on private ranchlands bumping against wilderness areas.


Ex-BLM chief Baca, however, said that Babbitt, his former boss, didn't know how to take a stand and stick to it. "Babbitt kept going out and looking for consensus, but in fact the livestock industry would never give an inch," said Baca, whom Babbitt forced to resign last year. "The only way this thing will get solved is with leadership and courage, and that means saying no to the ranchers."





* Tony Davis





Tony Davis writes in Albuquerque, New Mexico.