Bruce Babbitt is proving himself a good, and possibly very smart, loser.
In his first year as
secretary of Interior, Babbitt has seen his plans for grazing and
other land-use reforms blocked in the U.S. Congress, and a ground
swell of opposition started in the rural West.
Now, trying to douse the flames of a second Sagebrush Rebellion,
the secretary is canvassing the region. With Colorado Gov. Roy
Romer, Babbitt spent the past seven Wednesdays in Colorado
hammering out alternative grazing reforms with a group of 16
ranchers, environmentalists and local officials.
The secretary also flew to Idaho, Utah, Oregon
and twice to Nevada to talk with hand-picked groups of ranchers and
environmentalists. As scores of spectators - mostly ranchers -
looked on, Babbitt repeatedly pledged that the administration will
listen and change its approach. Additional trips are planned to
Wyoming, New Mexico and other states.
seems to be shifting tactics. Faced with a certain lawsuit from
ranchers over his initial Rangeland Reform "94 package, the
secretary is easing off the strict bureaucratic controls he first
proposed. In Grand Junction, Colo., for example, Babbitt announced
he would drop plans for detailed national standards governing all
aspects of range management. They included everything from
placement of salt licks to fencing riparian areas.
Instead, Babbitt endorsed a new consensus
process being developed in Colorado. It puts much of the
responsibility and the specifics for improving public rangelands
into the hands of local citizen advisory councils, instead of
In an interview with Los
Angeles Times reporter Frank Clifford, Babbitt conceded, "I was a
big believer in the New West kind of theory," referring to the idea
that the region is filling up with urban exiles who want to see the
landscape restored to what it was before grazing, mining,
clearcutting and dam building.
"I thought this time it might
be easier to get things done. The Western press, the economic
community, a lot of people seemed to be in favor of it. But
obviously that was not entirely the case."
Babbitt's willingness to talk compromise has
unnerved much of the national environmental
has taken a beating in the Western press and now he's trying to
mend fences," says Jim Norton, Southwest regional director for The
Wilderness Society. "As a result we may lose any chance at
significant grazing reform."
however, say the new approach could improve the chances for grazing
reform. They say Babbitt's mistake was not in underestimating the
desire for reform, but in picking the wrong fight with the wrong
Rangeland Reform "94 focused on grazing
fees, water rights, tenure, subleasing and other high-profile
political issues that some local activists say would have had
little impact on the ground. Even worse, by backing Nevada Sen.
Harry Reid's grazing bill, the administration ended up making its
pitch for reform in the U.S. Senate (HCN,
"We have a lot of
U.S. senators from Western cow states that kowtow to the
cattlemen," says Idaho Governor and former Interior Secretary Cecil
Andrus. "They were afraid for their political lives."
Babbitt should never have gotten involved in a
shooting match between the Senate and the House over grazing fees,
Andrus adds. "I told him last spring he should worry more about how
to manage and protect the resources ... like finding ways to give
incentives for good stewardship."
environmental activist Pat Ford agrees. The cattlemen's passionate
resistance made great copy in the papers, says Ford. But, there was
little for environmentalists to sink their teeth
"The pressure for
public-land grazing reform in Idaho is homegrown," says Ford. "But
we're not into phony alerts," referring to the urgent letters
conservation groups mail to activate their
While the administration's attempt at a
political solution on grazing fizzled, the fiasco may not stop or
even delay reform.
In the courts and on the
ground, environmental groups in the West have gained momentum by
challenging federal grazing plans, forest by forest and allotment
After a five-year struggle and
two appeals, law professor Joe Feller recently won a sweeping
ruling that will immediately stop grazing in five canyons in
southeast Utah (see story on next page).
similar campaign by conservationists, anglers and hunters in Idaho
is forcing the Forest Service to remove two-thirds of the cattle
grazed on the Stanley Basin allotment in the Sawtooth National
Recreation Area. That decision ends a bitter three-year fight (HCN,
"Stanley Basin is
the biggest grazing fight in Idaho," says Pat Ford, "and the Forest
Service EIS drew hundreds of letters from Idaho conservationists
and sportsmen who supported the cuts."
Likewise, Idaho environmentalists recently achieved an out-of-court
settlement with electronics giants and hobby ranchers William
Hewlett and David Packard on the 90,000-acre San Felipe allotment
near Challis, Idaho (HCN, 12/13/93).
High-profile battles also continue on the Gila National Forest in
New Mexico, the Toiyabe in Nevada, the Beaverhead in Montana and
The second approach to change comes
from collaboratives. In Gunnison, Colo., eastern Oregon, northern
Arizona and elsewhere, ranchers, environmentalists, fishermen and
federal land managers are conducting range experiments that have
restored riparian areas, increased vegetation and wildlife, and
generated new trust and understanding between ranchers and
challenges to grazing plans or in the collaboratives,
environmentalists are asking the tough questions that Babbitt,
Clinton or even avowed environmentalist and chairman of the House
Natural Resources Committee, George Miller, could never bring up in
Washington - questions that gore the West's sacred cow: "Is this
ground suitable for grazing in the first place?" or "How does
grazing affect recreation and other uses of the public land?"
As indicated in the recent Comb Wash case,
judges may start answering those questions. Fearing that the courts
may take over policy making as they took over timber, some Western
ranchers are stepping into the leadership vacuum created by the
refusal of the national cattle industry and the Senate to consider
grazing reform or fee
"The future of our
industry is at stake in how this is resolved," says Gunnison
rancher Ken Spann. He bucked the state and national cattlemen's
associations to negotiate with neighboring environmentalists last
summer, and he is now a leading voice in the Colorado group working
with Babbitt to devise an alternative grazing reform plan.
"We need to take a
longer-term view," Spann adds. "It seems to me that the most
effective way to make real progress with the conditions on the
ground and real progress in converting the West into a society that
will work together for its own benefit, is to take the controversy
out of it."
Spann and other ranchers in the
Colorado working group have cut through the industry's defensive
rhetoric, agreeing that reform and even higher grazing fees are
necessary. More importantly, the Colorado ranchers have agreed to
dismantle the system that for the last century has given ranchers
almost absolute control over public rangelands.
The Colorado model would disband the Bureau of Land Management's
rancher-dominated grazing advisory boards and replace them with
multiple use advisory councils in each state. The councils would
consist of 15 members appointed by the governor and secretary of
Interior representing all public-land users, and would help with
federal land planning and policy decisions.
local level, the Colorado model calls for smaller rangeland
resource councils for each national forest and BLM resource area.
Five members - two grazing permittees, an environmentalist, a
wildlife or recreation representative and a citizen-at-large -
would monitor range conditions, set goals, work with the agency to
develop grazing allottment plans and oversee a small
All council members would attend
rangeland ecosystem schools to study range management, ecology,
federal environmental laws and communication skills. While they
would not have to live near the grazing area, they would have to
demonstrate that they know it well. Staff members of environmental
and industry groups would be barred.
would work by consensus, but both groups and individuals would have
the right to appeal range decisions. There is one caveat. "We're
willing to share the table," Spann says. But if "some
environmentalist from New Jersey" wants to appeal a range plan, he
adds, he or she must have been part of the process from the
believe the consensus process will enable them to survive the
inevitable reforms. Reeves Brown, executive director of the
Colorado Cattlemen's Association, faxes new developments to other
state livestock associations on a weekly basis. "I tell them this
is a lot better for everybody than what we had on the table
before," says Brown.
While the idea has drawn
cautious support in other states, Brown says most ranchers and
other livestock associations do not yet trust Babbitt.
Environmental groups are also cautious, noting that local control
is what gave the West overgrazing, clearcutting, dam building and
The Wilderness Society's Jim
Norton warns that Babbitt is enmeshing himself in a Byzantine
process with local boards. "He should move forward and publish
regulations as he promised to do in early November," says
Gary Sprung, director of the Crested
Butte-based High Country Citizens Alliance and a member of the
Colorado working group, argues that simply vesting more power in
the BLM won't work. Sprung says the problem with grazing is not a
lack of good
there in every grazing permit, but we've never revoked a permit for
bad stewardship in Colorado," says Sprung. "Babbitt's reforms would
have done nothing to reform the BLM's culture, nor the ranching
culture. We need to come from within, to influence their hearts and
Sprung says while it is easy for his
and other local environmental groups to accept strong local
influence, it's harder for the national environmental groups.
However, Maggie Fox of the Sierra Club and Tom Dougherty of the
National Wildlife Federation, who have participated in the Colorado
sessions, say that after watching the process, they would back
local resource boards. But they support the boards only as a
Colorado experiment, and only in combination with better
Fox, who communicates with
environmentalists throughout the West and in Washington on a weekly
basis, says anxiety over the Colorado approach is easing. "The
question is, even if we have fabulous regulations, ones that we
wrote verbatim, will the range improve as quickly as it would if
you got ranchers to buy into the process at the start?" asks Fox.
Like the ranchers, Sprung, Fox and other
environmentalists say they will wait for the next round of
proposals from Babbitt.
new set of draft regulations and a draft environmental impact
statement is due out by early March. Interior spokeswoman Stephanie
Hanna says the Colorado process will be a key
"The secretary has
decided that the only way range reform will really work and have a
lasting effect is if there is consensus on the ground," says Hanna.
"We will build into the options in the draft EIS and the new draft
regulations as much local incentive to buy into this as possible."
Babbitt also seems intent on keeping the
proposal away from Congress. He has promised two sets of public
hearings in every Western state, and says he will continue to work
with ranchers and environmentalists throughout the
To get on the mailing list for the new
draft regulations, write the Department of Land and Renewable
Resources, U.S. Department of Interior, BLM, P.O. Box 65800,
Washington, DC 20035-9998.
Steve Hinchman is HCN's staff reporter.