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Know the West

Grazing combatants vow to keep feuding


The day after he didn't get appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt dove back into grazing reform. At a U.S. Senate hearing in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 14, Babbitt told several hundred ranchers and environmentalists that he expects to "stay in the middle of this grazing issue until we work out something that we can all live with in the West."

His commitment met an equally firm stand from the diverse group of Anglo, Hispanic and Indian ranchers and environmentalists at the hearing: They refused to cooperate with Babbitt or with each other.

The hearing, sponsored by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Rangeland Reform, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., listened to 10 invited speakers from all sides.

Agricultural economist John Fowler of New Mexico State University said he objected to the several premises behind the rangeland reform program: that rangelands are deteriorated and getting worse; that permittees who graze cattle and sheep on public lands are not doing an adequate job; and that reform will improve range conditions.

David Henderson, New Mexico Director of the National Audubon Society, countered that the state is rapidly losing topsoil due to overgrazing and that over the last 100 years the Southwest has lost "over 90 percent of the riparian communities."

Henderson said the latest range reform proposal doesn't go far enough. He said it places "greater emphasis' on keeping ranchers in business than it does on ecology. And Jim Fish, president of Public Lands Action Network, charged that the proposed fee structure, which doubles ranchers' costs over three years, fails to cover federal administrative costs and therefore amounts to public support of "wealthy welfare ranchers."

But Wesley Grau, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers, predicted that 1,550 of the state's 3,500 federal lands permittees would go under as a result of the higher fees. And Melvin Batista, speaking for 450 Navajo ranching families, warned that failed ranchers would turn to welfare.

The question of who would control on-the-ground decisions - when cattle went on and off the public land, whether riparian areas were fenced, how predators were dealt with - was also contentious. Susan Schock, director of Gila Watch, stated that "local control by ranchers has brought us to an ecological crisis." And Jim Fish said decisions "have been excessively influenced by a small number of individuals with the most personal gain at stake."

But Pete Gnatkowski, president of the New Mexico Wool Growers Inc., said, "Those of us with the most at stake might not even be represented."

Maria Varela, co-director of the Hispanic sheep growers' group, Ganados del Valle, warned of possible "range wars' in response to the ever-intensifying pressure on ranching. Then she extended a conditional offer to the anti-grazing contingent: "When the environmental community exhibits as much concern for people as it does for wildlife, bridges can be built."

In response to the attacks on his proposal, Babbitt pointed to successful consensus groups in Oregon and Colorado. "To those who say we can't work together, I say simply, "Yes, you can." And I'm going to be out here relentlessly ... trying to find reasonable people on both sides, coaxing you, pushing you, shoving, because I think this is the future of where it's gotta go in the West."

Deborah Begel is a free-lance writer in Tierra Amarilla, N.M.