Grazing talks split both sides

  • Graphic

    An open letter on grazing reform to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt

Most environmentalists hate the idea that Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt would let a group of moderate ranchers and environmentalists from Colorado try to create a consensus plan on grazing reform.

It's like watering down a diluted version of a weak plan that was off to begin with, says Peter Angst, public-lands specialist with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

So when environmentalists Maggie Fox and Tom Dougherty were added to the Colorado working group last November, many people breathed a sigh of relief. Fox is a hard-boiled lawyer, water expert and wilderness lobbyist for the Sierra Club. She spent seven years in the 1980s as the club's Southwest regional director in Boulder, Colo.

Dougherty is Western divisional director for the National Wildlife Federation, also in Boulder. Combined, they have dozens of years of experience fighting for grazing reform, wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, wolf re-introduction and wetlands protection.

They were seen as strong-willed skeptics who would not back down on reform, and who could resist both the ranchers and the local environmentalists who had been hand-picked by the Colorado Cattlemen's Association and Colorado Gov. Roy Romer.

But after eight weeks of hard negotiations, Fox and Dougherty came away endorsing both a new compromise plan, and, more surprisingly, the consensus process.

The two-month marathon of meetings, conference calls, TV interviews and negotiations produced only one concrete idea: citizen advisory boards. However, that one small egg may hatch a fundamentally different approach to reform.

Under the plan, the Bureau of Land Management's rancher-only grazing advisory boards would be converted to citizen councils consisting of two permittees, one environmentalist, one wildlife advocate and a citizen at large. The councils would operate by consensus. These councils, and not federal land managers, would become largely responsible for overseeing and implementing reform on the public range.

That idea was especially hard to accept for Fox and Dougherty, who built careers fighting the old grazing advisory boards. As Fox notes, while she was leading the campaign for the Colorado wilderness bill, ranchers on the Colorado grazing boards were using money collected in federal grazing fees to fly back to Washington to lobby against her.

Despite that history, Fox says it is now time for the national environmental movement to start working with ranchers and start spending as much time lobbying for reform in the rural West as they do in the halls of Congress. And that means mutual respect, flexibility and consensus decision making. But that's where Fox and Dougherty's voices get shaky. They know it's a big risk, one their comrades in arms won't agree to easily.

"Should people buy off on this?" asks Maggie Fox, who still retains her soft North Carolina drawl after 20 years as a Western activist. "No way. They ought to take a hard look at it and see if it has value for their area. I believe it is sound for Colorado."

"Everything in my mind tells me it won't work," says Dougherty, who has logged almost two decades with the national and Wyoming wildlife federations, most of it on grazing issues. "But there are some things in my belly that tell me it could."

Neither Fox, Dougherty nor any member of a national environmental group were part of the Colorado process originally. No one wanted to be.

The group was put together by the Colorado Cattlemen's Association and Gov. Romer in the last days of the Senate grazing filibuster in November. It consisted of eight progressive ranchers and moderate environmentalists who had already reached compromise solutions in various places in Colorado. They met in the governor's mansion, linked to the Secretary of Interior's office in Washington, D.C., by speakerphone, to give Babbitt advice on how to fix the water language in the grazing reform package.

But Babbitt, already beaten in the Senate and desperate for a political toehold in the West, was more interested in the Colorado group's work on alternative grazing plans. So Babbitt asked to hear the group in person.

That's when Fox and Dougherty intervened. Both called Romer, warning that any recommendation from the Colorado group would be rejected. Under pressure from other groups as well, Romer let Fox, Dougherty and other environmental, logging and multiple use groups sit in.

Then Babbitt dropped his bomb. Instead of using the meeting for a one-time sound bite and photo opportunity, he challenged the group to meet with him for eight straight weeks to develop a consensus grazing plan.

Romer and Babbitt drafted Fox and Dougherty on the spot, overcoming objections from ranchers, who feared they would be hired guns for national environmental groups. The governor and secretary then asked the enlarged group - seven ranchers, seven environmental and wildlife advocates and two local government officials - to start with a compromise grazing proposal worked out in Gunnison last summer (HCN, 8/9/93).

It was awkward at first. "It took a while for the ranchers to see us as individuals instead of human position papers," says Fox.

But as they got to know each other, Fox and Dougherty say they were surprised by the ranchers.

"The dialogue began in a different place," says Fox. The various ranchers and Reeves Brown, director of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, started by expressing the value of public lands as part of the national heritage, instead of claiming the land as their fiefdoms. And they spoke strongly of the need for healthy ecosystems.

"One of the most fascinating points came when we started to share our values," says Fox.

The process turned out to be stimulating and fun for all sides. Much of the credit, participants say, goes to Romer.

"He was eager and interested," says Fox. "Romer ran the meetings with extraordinary skill, constantly encouraging, cajoling and stimulating us, and winning our participation."

The governor also set a grueling pace. They met through long days, much of the time under TV camera lights. Romer allowed no breaks and only half-hour lunches.

However, when it came to issues, the group found they still had major differences. The meetings focused mainly on the grazing advisory boards concept, but also debated grazing fees, suitability, tenure, water rights and subleasing. They agreed on little.

"It was a crucible for the secretary," Fox explains. "He'd throw something out on the table and we'd chew on it for awhile, and he'd watch us chew on it. I think we identified issues for him, things he hadn't thought about."

By about the fourth meeting, the group started to jell. Stan Broome, a former rancher representing local government in Western Colorado, says it took until the fourth meeting for Babbitt to become engaged, and to accept the process as valid.

The sticking point was over who could participate. Ranchers and some local environmentalists wanted only local people involved. They would have barred paid staff from environmental or ranching special-interest groups.

Fox, Dougherty and Romer argued that since it is public land, any U.S. citizen must be allowed to participate, including paid professionals.

The group spent one full day and a chunk of three other days fighting over the residency requirement alone. Between meetings, each side caucused. Every meeting was preceded and followed by endless side meetings, conference calls and closed consultations with lawyers. Like Fox and Dougherty, the Colorado ranchers took considerable heat from their brethren in other states.

"There were threats coming down from national cattle interests that they would have to disown the process," says Bill Riebsame, who was one of the original environmental activists on the Colorado working group, and who participated in conference calls on both sides.

"Groups like the Rock Springs, (Wyo.) Grazing Association and the Toiyabe (Nev.) Grazing Association really heated up when they saw this group in Colorado was giving away what they call local control."

In the end, the ranchers agreed to let anyone serve on the boards, regardless of where they live or work. More importantly, to preserve the integrity of the boards, the ranchers also agreed to give local and state environmental groups veto authority over the environmental and wildlife representatives.

Fox and Dougherty also agreed on the idea, in part because of an obscure Colorado law passed six years ago. Called the Murphy Act, it says that if the secretary of Interior disbands the BLM's grazing advisory boards, the Colorado Agricultural Commissioner must reconvene them immediately as state boards. These boards would have no environmental representatives yet they would retain oversight of the state's 12.5 percent of federal grazing receipts.

"Our consensus plan is far better than the alternatives in Colorado," says Dougherty.

More importantly, he adds, it's a better way to do things. "We write these laws and then go back to D.C. and leave it up to the district manager or the area manager to make it happen," says Dougherty. "Unless we hire a militia we can't expect them to enforce it.

"We have to somehow legitimize this and involve people in rural areas," he adds.

Fox and Dougherty took part in a historical accident, and were changed by it. But few other environmentalists or environmental groups seem prepared to trust ranchers. For them it is still an all-or-nothing battle.

The Wilderness Society, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Idaho Conservation League and 50 other environmental groups published a full-page letter to Babbitt Jan. 19, in the Denver Post and the Western edition of The New York Times. The letter, timed for the final meeting of the Colorado group, accused Babbitt of appeasing ranchers and demanded that he enact strong regulatory reforms or face an environmental rebellion.

"I have no faith in that Colorado group," says Linn Kincannon, a public-lands expert for the Idaho Conservation League in Boise. "The idea of giving more local control to permittees is ridiculous."

Kathy Kilmer of The Wilderness Society in Denver, says, "I have great respect for both Maggie and Tom. But I'm not sure why they are involved in this process. We were invited and declined."

Maggie Fox and Tom Dougherty understand those fears. "Everybody should get their hands on this thing and wrench it around," says Fox. "This is about the culture of implementation. It's about finding a way to get people out on the ground communicating about how to restore a healthy public range." n

Steve Hinchman is an HCN staff reporter.

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