Enthusiasm for the watered-down Rangeland Reform package had ebbed to an all-time low among environmentalists. And Western Republicans, emboldened by the 1994 elections, easily wrested from Babbitt a six-month delay on its implementation so that they and the ranchers could write their version.
Now, with the Aug. 21 deadline for implementation at hand, the tide may be turning.
The change started in early August, when Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., invoked a little-used parliamentary maneuver. It stopped a House subcommittee from voting on the GOP's livestock-friendly bill (HCN, 8/7/95). Republicans, realizing that the delay meant they could not beat Babbitt's deadline, lashed out. "This is going to create a firestorm in the West," Rep. James Hansen, chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, told the Albuquerque Tribune.
But in place of a firestorm came a retreat from within the GOP ranks.
New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, acknowledged Aug. 4 that his Livestock Grazing Act needs revision before it can become law. The senator had come under increasing attack from sportsmen, environmentalists and the newspapers in his state for making grazing the primary use on public lands.
Typical of the reaction in the Southwest was an Arizona Republic editorial, headlined "Cowboy Socialism." It said the bill would "essentially turn Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands into private preserves where ranching was dominant and federal land managers were powerless to protect resources that belong to the public."
"It has become clear to me that there are many, many legitimate misunderstandings about the bill," Domenici told the Albuquerque Tribune. "I never intended to (make) livestock the dominant use."
Domenici and other Western Republicans have asked Babbitt to delay the new regulations for another 90 days to give them time to cobble together a compromise. But Interior officials say they've waited long enough.
"Our intention is to implement the regulations on Aug. 21," says Interior spokesman John Wright. "They've already had six months to review this thing."
The ranching community hasn't given up yet. The National Cattlemen's Association and four other livestock groups are seeking relief in the federal courts. In a lawsuit filed July 27 in Cheyenne, Wyo., the groups asked for an injunction to stop the new grazing regulations before they take effect.
National Cattlemen's Association spokeswoman Alisa Harrison says that although an injunction is a long shot, a legislative solution is not. She remains confident that Domenici can change the bill to quell the outcry from sportsmen and other recreationists while still providing ranchers with the economic certainty they need.
"We certainly have a good chance of passing legislation this session," she says.
In the absence of a court injunction, the Interior Department says it will begin implementing the first phase of the new regulations, which involves the formation of state advisory councils. The 15-member appointed bodies will include ranchers, environmentalists and sportsmen, who will make recommendations to the BLM about grazing.
Livestock officials maintain that the regulations will allow non-ranchers to have too much say over grazing issues and will eventually drive many ranchers out of business. But the legislative battle on Capitol Hill has made Babbitt's regulations look more palatable to some environmentalists.
"We're not jumping up and down for the new regulations," says Tom Dougherty, who works for the National Wildlife Federation out of Boulder, Colo. "But at least Babbitt's proposal leaves the public in the public lands."
Jeff Burgess, a grazing activist from Tempe, Ariz., credits Babbitt with educating the public.
"Before Babbitt began his process, only a handful of conservationists were concerned about grazing on public lands," says Burgess, who participated in Babbitt's grazing meetings.
"The democratic way in which he did it, the fact that he got everyone involved, has been good. I didn't feel that way before. I used to think, "We know what the problem is on the land, so let's fix it." But Babbitt read the social landscape better than I did."
Dougherty, who also participated in the Rangeland Reform effort, says the extremism of the Domenici bill made Babbitt's regulations seem reasonable.
"I think the Domenici bill finally awakened the sleeping giant of the public lands - the hunters, the fishermen, the boaters and hikers who use them," says Dougherty. "They realized, "Hey, we really are about to lose the public use of public lands." This may very well be a turning point."
- Paul Larmer, HCN associate editor