After waging a defensive battle for more than two years, public-lands ranchers and their allies in Congress have gone on the offensive.
The Livestock Grazing Act of 1995, introduced May 25 by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., would kill Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's two-year effort to reform grazing practices on 270 million acres of land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Babbitt agreed in December to wait six months before implementing his reform package so that Congress could have its say.
Domenici's bill prevents the BLM from curtailing grazing unless it can show "imminent and irreversible damage to the land." It would also let ranchers hold on to permits even if they prevent public access to their allotment, fail to pay grazing fees, illegally kill endangered species or cut and remove vegetation without authorization.
Cathy Carlson of the National Wildlife Federation says the bill gives ranchers an "historic grazing preference right." That means the government might be forced to compensate ranchers who are told to graze fewer cows to protect the land, she says. The bill calls for an increase in the grazing fee from the current $1.65 per cow-calf pair to approximately $2.10.
In return for their cosponsorship of his bill, Domenici accepted an addition from Sens. Bryon Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both Democrats from North Dakota. It would turn over management of several million acres of national grasslands from the Forest Service to the Secretary of Agriculture and local grazing associations. "This would turn national grasslands into national cow pastures," says Kirk Koepsel of the Sierra Club.
Domenici, the powerful chair of the Budget Committee, says his bill will provide stability for ranchers across the West and save them from Babbitt's "onerous proposal," which is slated to become final on Aug. 21. He has promised to push through his bill and a companion bill in the House before then. - Paul Larmer