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Know the West

Babbitt has a bad day in New Mexico


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - For two hours, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt preached the joys of consensus to New Mexico ranchers and environmentalists. And for two hours, the ranchers and environmentalists snapped at each other with the same gusto that has marked their exchanges for the past decade.

The Jan. 20 meeting at the University of New Mexico may be the first of several such meetings, as Babbitt tries to spread the Colorado model into New Mexico. At this meeting, however, little was discussed beyond the shape of the table, as the two sides argued over how many environmentalists should be appointed to the citizen grazing councils that Babbitt hopes will speed range reform.

"They say everyone has to meet halfway, but halfway may not work for us," said Bob Jones, a rancher panelist. "When an environmentalist talks about meeting halfway, he may want to take half your rights away."

The problem for those seeking consensus is that New Mexico is a different world than Colorado. It's warmer, which allows cattle to graze in some areas all year. It's also drier, which means there are fewer plants for cows to eat.

Also, the federal land that the ranchers lease in New Mexico is typically intermingled with state and private lands. Ranchers fear any cutbacks on grazing federal land would harm their operations on state and private land.

From the start, this was a star-crossed session. The public was barred, and morning sessions met behind closed doors. The afternoon session was open only to the press and selected observers.

The day of the meeting, 30 ranchers and their family members paraded outside, carrying signs saying "Impeach Clinton" and yelling "Fire Babbitt." Inside, Babbitt apologized to the people of New Mexico "for having sinned against the First Amendment." He promised that future meetings would be public.

Another bitter, public controversy was barely averted over who would sit on the environmentalist panel. A few days before the session, a prospective panelist, Susan Schock of Silver City, one of the tougher grazing critics in the state, was vetoed, reportedly by Gov. Bruce King, whose family is in the ranching business. She was restored after other environmentalists threatened a public stink.

At the meeting itself, ranchers argued passionately for making as few changes to the current system as possible. Roswell rancher Bud Eppers chided environmentalists for not attending meetings of the current rancher-dominated grazing advisory boards. He said, "A lot of us feel, if it ain't broke, why fix it?"

Environmentalists, however, saw Babbitt's goal of consensus as part of the problem.

"Consensus is a wonderful thing, but if you demand consensus and nothing happens, you're left with the status quo," said Jim Fish of the Placitas-based Public Lands Action Network.

The writer works for the Albuquerque Tribune.