Oregon's ranchers vote for survival

  • Diane Sylvain


From the start, it was easy to see that the meeting on a bleary January 1994 day in Albuquerque, N.M., would go nowhere. The purpose was to look for a compromise, but four New Mexico environmentalists and ranchers spent most of the time hurling barbs at each other. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Gov. Bruce King, both from ranching families, served as glorified referees.

Babbitt never tried to set up another session. As Bud Eppers, a veteran ranching activist from the plains of Roswell, put it, there was no need: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Never mind that you couldn't drive more than 10 miles from virtually any town in the Land of Enchantment without seeing gouged-out streambeds. In the ranchers' eyes, the culprit was flooding, not grazing.

Never mind that the hills were covered with the juniper that moved in after cattle had wolfed down most of the grass; in ranchers' eyes, the chief villain was the Forest Service and its insistence on dousing every fire.

And never mind if the open range often looked like the Russian steppes during the World War II "scorched earth" policies of Joe Stalin; the land, ranchers and their allies never hesitated to tell you, was in its best condition in a century.

When Babbitt's Interior Department in 1993 launched its halting efforts toward rangeland reform, New Mexico ranchers led the charge against them, trying not only to block the department's rules in court, but also to get the courts to rule that federal land belonged to the states. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in 1995 to reintroduce endangered Mexican wolves to the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico, Catron County ranchers talked openly of shooting them.

Now, cut halfway across the continent to Salem, Oregon's capital, and fast-forward to a bleary, rain-swept day in November, just after the 1996 election. Here, too, ranchers, environmentalists and a governor are present, but this time it is for a press conference to tell the world that the three parties had come together.

The details were complex, but the plan's substance was quite simple. Ranchers, for the first time in years in Oregon and maybe in the entire West, had agreed in principle to accept a new layer of regulation.

The agreement was that two state agencies, the departments of Environmental Quality and Agriculture, would get huge budget and staffing increases to carry out five-year plans to improve the quality of more than 900 miles of cattle-battered streams.

The tools would be water-quality rules and plans, watershed enhancement funds, voluntary rancher compliance and negotiated settlements when possible and government enforcement when necessary.

The agreement would cost a bundle: $30 million or more every two years, in a state whose budget had just been ripped by voter approval of a property-tax slashing constitutional amendment that made California's Proposition 13 tax limits look like a tax increase.

There were skeptics; the ranchers refused to sign the agreement because they wanted to keep the dollar numbers open for negotiation in the 1997 Legislature. Legislative leaders winced at Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposal to finance the plan by increasing the deposit on pop and beer bottles. Still, for the first time, ranchers, Oregon Farm Bureau leaders and others in the agricultural community were acknowledging that grazing was causing a problem in the state and something had to be done to fix it.

Todd Heidgerken, executive director of an agricultural group calling itself Water for Life, embodies the new attitude of many Oregon ranchers. Raised on a farm in what's now a suburbanizing area south of Portland, Heidgerken got an agricultural resource economics degree at Oregon State University. Rather than talking about going to court or forming a militia to block regulations, Heidgerken and his group have opted for a more pragmatic course: studying the federal Clean Water Act, in order to get the best deal possible.

"If we're not involved in the process and we take a hard-line attitude, what happens then is you run the risk of having the federal government tell you what to do," Heidgerken said. "That takes away local control. By going through discussions and negotiations, we can creatively work together and figure out how to address the issue of complying with the (federal) Clean Water Act while maintaining the process with considerable local input."

Of course, Oregon ranchers had plenty of outside pressures prodding them toward compromise. Chief among them was Measure 38, an initiative on the 1996 ballot that would have banned cattle from hundreds of miles of polluted streams around the state. Although voters ultimately blasted it 64-36 percent, the measure had drawn more than 100,000 signatures to get on the ballot and at one time held a commanding lead in the polls.

Just as important was pressure from the governor. Nominally a liberal, environmentalist Democrat, Kitzhaber is a southern Oregon native who wears cowboy boots and blue jeans at press conferences and who fought hard against Measure 38 as extreme. He also repeatedly warned Oregon ranchers that if they didn't change their ways, a Measure 38 would pass sooner or later.

In New Mexico, on the other hand, politicians have nurtured ranchers' resistance to change. Ex-Gov. King, a Democrat and one of the state's dominant figures for two decades, would speak no ill of grazing. Neither does his successor, Republican Gary Johnson.

The state's other leading political figure, Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, is, if possible, a bigger booster of the livestock industry than King. And even if the state's fragmented environmental community wanted to push something like Measure 38, they couldn't; the state doesn't have an initiative process.

Yet the hard-line isn't paying off. In wise-use stronghold Catron County, Diamond Bar rancher Kit Laney left 850 to 900 head of cattle on the range for a year without a grazing permit, despite Forest Service warnings that they were doing irreparable harm to the land. A conservative U.S. District Court judge recently ordered the cows off.

Catron County Commissioner Hugh B. McKeen spent years fuming about "neo-Nazi Forest Service officials" and "environmental extremists" and led the county's legal battles against federal public-lands regulation. Last year, county voters threw him out of office. And the efforts of New Mexico and other ranchers to get Domenici's pro-industry grazing bill through Congress fizzled; the final version was watered down so much that the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association thought it too wimpy.

By contrast, Oregon ranchers now have an agreement in hand, and the support of legislative leaders in trying to make it work. The unknowns are huge; it's not clear if the Legislature will find money to back its rhetorical support of the agreement. Even if the money appears, the next few years are likely to involve lots of arguments between environmentalists and state officials, who will want cattle fenced off or removed from damaged streams, and ranchers, who will simply want to control the time of the year that the cows graze there.

The state's environmentalists know that negotiations can often serve as an excuse for inaction; they're primed to create the son of Measure 38 if the land doesn't improve soon.

Still, even hard-liner environmentalist Bill Marlett, director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, says he was glad to see the agreement, and it's not hard to see why. Some of his compadres in the environmental movement like to compare ranchers to alcoholics, in need of a 12-step recovery plan to wean them from overgrazing. Now, Oregon ranchers have taken step one.

Tony Davis recently reported for the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Oregon.

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