Air Force drops a sweetheart deal onto ranch land

  In an unorthodox move, the U.S. Air Force plans to offer an Idaho rancher around $1 million to turn his grazing allotment into a bombing range.

The deal, which was added to the defense appropriations bill by Idaho Republican Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, would pull Bert Brackett's cattle off 12,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land. In return, Brackett would get fencing and water facilities on a new allotment, in addition to getting first call on a possible future re-lease of the old allotments. He would also get a sum equal to the value of his cattle and his profit - an amount which Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., estimates to be as much as $1 million over a decade. Wyden opposes the plan.

An Air Force spokesman says the military chose Brackett's 12,000-acre allotment because he was the only rancher there. The Air Force set the full value of Brackett's operation as the fee, adds Lt. Tom Lilly, to make sure he can keep his operation.

Wyden says the bill sets a dangerous precedent, treating grazing permits as a right instead of a privilege. Lisa Shultz of the Wilderness Society agrees. "Brackett's getting paid for something he didn't lose," she says.

Even Brackett doesn't like the deal. "We have everything to lose and little to gain," he explains, doubting the new grazing allotment will compare to the old. His family has grazed cows in the general area since before he was born, and he hopes his children will continue to ranch there.

The Senate approved the bill and the House will discuss it in December.

* Taffeta Elliott
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