Unranchers get competitive

When Forest Guardians leased four parcels of New Mexico state land in February, it became the first environmental group to win permits always granted to ranchers. The permits, encompassing 2,078 acres north of Santa Fe, were non-controversial because they have not been leased by ranchers for seven years, says Forest Guardian Director Sam Hitt. But that will change in August when his group and the Southwest Environmental Center try bids against ranchers who are using the leases. If recent events in Oregon give any indication, the groups can expect a fierce battle. When Oregon's State Land Board accepted a competitive bidding plan that opened up the process to "unranchers' - people who had no intention of grazing livestock (HCN, 7/25/94) - ranchers took the state to court. They won last December when a Harney County Circuit Judge ruled that the plan violated a 1983 policy granting ranchers long-term leases and renewal rights. Then, in February, Oregon's new governor, John Kitzahber, joined the land board and voted with the new majority to overturn the competitive-bidding plan. Bill Marlett, head of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, says his group is appealing the Harney county court decision and also suing the State Land Board to force it to open the bidding process to everyone.

* Anders Halverson