The controversy over livestock grazing on public lands is not merely a contest between ranchers and environmentalists.
Any substantial changes in federal grazing policy affect us all. And that is why I'm afraid that our senior U.S. senator has misplaced his priorities in his Livestock Grazing Act (S. 852).
I say this reluctantly because Sen. Domenici has done many good things in the 23 years he's been in Washington. But he's apparently lost touch with what's important in the day-to-day lives of most New Mexicans on this issue.
This regrettable bill is the usual out-of-touch, politics-of-polarization Washington formula, intended to score political points by pitting two camps against each other. It:
* Mocks the federal concept of multiple use by elevating grazing to a status higher than every other use, and places livestock operators in a position to enforce that preference by excluding other uses like recreation;
* Prevents federal land managers from stopping abuse of public lands until "permanent" damage is confirmed, which by definition is too late;
* Offers no incentives for good ranching practices (our State Land Office reduces fees for quality range operations);
* Elevates a lessee's past grazing activities from a privilege on the public's land to a "historical grazing preference right' - an undefined, exclusive authority that could not be restricted without the threat of litigation;
* Gives permittees inappropriate control over hunters' access to big game and other wildlife; and
* Hides the exclusion of the public in multiple levels of industry-dominated advisory councils and committees in every state. More bureaucracy controlled by special interests is hardly what the American people want.
Furthermore, this bill does little to help public-lands ranchers survive in the long run. It does not address the underlying economic factors that have already forced many New Mexico ranchers to get day jobs. It does not deter ranch corporations, very rich individuals or foreign investors from gobbling up lands and leases, driving family operations out of business. It provides no opportunities for communities to diversify their economies or otherwise remain healthy and viable.
I understand that Sen. Domenici will attempt to modify this bill before it goes much further through the Senate. I believe this bill is defective and major changes would still leave us with a bad law.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Ray Powell is New Mexico's Commissioner of Public Lands, an elected position.