Around a table sat the 15 members of Wyoming's Resource Advisory Council. They were the very same ranchers, industry representatives and conservationists who had been meeting for over a year to develop grazing guidelines for public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming.
But this time they answered to Gov. James Geringer, not Babbitt.
The governor usurped the council in mid-October, when he and Babbitt couldn't agree on who should be reappointed to the federally chartered RAC. The dispute boiled down to one particular member, who appeared to be linked with the livestock industry. Interior officials said they felt the RAC was too heavily weighted toward the livestock industry.
The governor's decision to go it alone put a damper on a program that is the centerpiece of Babbitt's efforts to reform the management of public rangelands. The RACs were an attempt to include a broader public in the management of BLM lands in the West. The other 23 committees have proceeded with relatively little controversy, and many people have hailed them as a healing force in the range war between ranchers, environmentalists and federal land managers (HCN, 9/16/96).
"It is truly perplexing to me that we have reached this state of affairs in Wyoming while in all other states the work of the 23 other RACs is continuing while changes in RAC membership have been accommodated," wrote Babbitt in a letter to Geringer following the split.
At the late-November meeting in Casper, a few of the RAC members said they thought about walking out, unclear whether their work for a state RAC would be valid. An Interior official later suggested that the state RAC's recommendations would not carry much weight. Babbitt had been even more blunt in a letter, telling Geringer he had directed Wyoming BLM Director Al Pierson "to proceed independently" to draft recommended standards and guidelines for grazing. That could mean the state will be stuck with federal "fallback" regulations - generic grazing rules which don't make allowances for different conditions in the states.
Ranching in spades
The Wyoming Resource Advisory Committee spat began about a year ago, almost as soon as the federal advisory boards were authorized by Babbitt. At that time, with Geringer insisting on his appointments, Babbitt approved the Wyoming RAC membership, but only for one year. RAC appointments in other states were staggered, with members named to one-, two- and three-year terms.
Unlike other councils in the West, Wyoming's includes some heavy hitters from the ranching community, including former Wyoming Stock Growers Association director Bob Budd; sheep rancher Truman Julian, a former Wyoming Woolgrowers Association official who is on the rancher-oriented National Public Lands Council; well-known Wyoming rancher Jack Turnell, and Rep. Carolyn Paseneaux, the former executive director of the state woolgrowers group. When Geringer is not present, the panel is chaired by State Lands Commissioner Jim Magagna, a southwest Wyoming sheep rancher who has served as president of both state and national sheep organizations.
With the leadership of its ranching contingent, the RAC sought to exempt ranchers who sublease their federal grazing leases from a surcharge imposed by the Interior Department. The agency's rejection of the exemption was "one of the things that caused me to dig my heels in" over the appointments, Geringer said.
Another source of friction developed when Carolyn Paseneaux tried to push through a recommendation calling on Interior to recognize the economic impact of grazing regulations on communities. The proposal ran counter to the RAC purpose, which is to develop guidelines and policies based on science, not socio-economics.
Although nobody at the Casper meeting would name the RAC member Babbitt wants to dump, Paseneaux's name surfaced frequently. She is known for her close association to county-supremacy groups in the state and now works as Wyoming director of Frontiers of Freedom Foundation, former Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop's conservative states'-rights think tank.
Paseneaux said she has never been told that hers is the disputed appointment. Nor, she said, would she voluntarily resign even if that were the case.
"To me, politics is not acceptable, because I have been one damn good member of this group and I have not pushed ridiculous ideas," she said.
A history of bad blood
The squabble over RAC appointments is part of a larger feud between Babbitt and Geringer. When Babbitt arrived at Yellowstone National Park to help release the first reintroduced wolves in 1995, he never telephoned Geringer. Geringer quickly attacked Babbitt for his alleged insensitivity to ranchers, at one point calling him a "tyrant." When the governor revealed that he planned to create his own advisory committee, he made the announcement only a week before the Nov. 5 election at a joint press conference with Sen. Craig Thomas, the Wyoming Republican who would return federal lands to state jurisdiction.
"Anybody with any brains at all knows that this is a political thing," said RAC member Barbara Parsons, a former president of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
Despite the politics, Parsons and all the other members of the group have decided to stick with Geringer's RAC, at least for the time being. In Casper, Geringer urged the board to stay together. The Interior Department was mandated to solicit local comment, he said, and "in reality, (Babbitt) can't ignore us."
Geringer said he was open to ironing out his differences with Babbitt. But with his recent suggestion that Babbitt resign, the governor seemed clearly to be waiting for a change in Washington. Any further talks on the issue would wait until after Inauguration Day in January, he told RAC members.
Babbitt, in the meantime, could appoint new members to a new federal council. A Babbitt aide said that was unlikely since Interior was too busy with other things - such as working with the other 23 councils in the West that are functioning without friction.
The writer works in Casper, Wyoming.