Grazing: the shape of the future

  • I always had a dream of buying a little ranch out West - and selling it off piece by piece.

    Greg Siple

Most combatants in the public-lands grazing battle are still in their bunkers, happily sending shells into opposing camps. Nevertheless, there hangs over this familiar and comfortable scene a small but dark cloud: the willingness among some former enemies to talk to each other.

The possibility of negotiations is as unsettling in the West as it is in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Those who cling to the never-surrender-and-never-negotiate ways feel betrayed by conversation and negotiation. Environmentalists are the most publicly shaken, as was apparent in a full page Denver Post ad that 54 groups signed repudiating the Colorado process. But ranchers, who generally maintain tighter discipline in public, are also very nervous.

The two groups are angry internally, and everyone is angry at Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. It is not surprising that ranchers are suspicious of Babbitt. But it is a tiny bit ungrateful of environmentalists to call Babbitt names over this new process. After all, he left half of his political blood on the floor of the U.S. Senate trying to carry the environmental movement's traditional approach to rangeland reform.

Because Babbitt, unlike predecessor James Watt, is not a suicide pilot, he is now trying to achieve reform in a different way. For this effort, he deserves the West's version of the Nobel Peace Prize. At the least, given the failure of traditional sue-and-legislate approaches to change, he deserves the chance to give this new approach a try.

But on-the-ground consensus-building, we are told, is hopeless. Environmental critics say that if private citizens negotiate with ranchers, we will lose. Only strong regulations, it is argued, administered centrally and with an iron fist, can save the land and its wildlife. Local people and local processes, it is said, will inevitably betray the land.

The reality is different. No land can be controlled from afar, against the will of local people. Distant environmentalists can encourage change and, failing that, they can create conflict and gridlock, making life expensive and miserable for locals. But successful, on-the-ground management will require the wholehearted cooperation of local people.

Thanks to the efforts of the national environmental groups, backed by good work locally, we have reached a stage in this struggle where there is no alternative to sitting down with the ranchers. Initially the ranchers will have the negotiating edge. But over the longer term, citizen reformers will win. Some victories will come because progressive ranchers will adopt their critics' values, but implement those values in their individual ways. Victories over ranchers determined to stick to the old ways will come harder, but those too will come.

The majority of environmentalists and ranchers oppose the Colorado approach and may succeed in killing it. But on-the-ground cooperation among environmentalists and ranchers was growing even before Babbitt and Colorado Governor Roy Romer thrust the process onto center stage. Such efforts will proceed here and there, in growing numbers, regardless of what happens now in Washington, D.C.

The evolution of this new approach to grazing on public lands will take years, but its probable shape can already be seen. First, local land-use practices will be hammered out locally. If environmentalists can't field a team in, let's say, Catron County, N.M., then extractors will dominate that county, subject to appeals and lawsuits and other tactics that distant environmentalists can use. But the Catron Counties of the West will grow fewer and fewer. As time goes on, and as the West continues to change, all small communities will have those who speak, in many different ways, for wildlife and healthy ecosystems.

The local negotiations will take place within a larger context. The context will include the recognition that - especially in the Southwest - some lands are absolutely unsuitable for grazing.

Where the land can be grazed in a healthy, sustainable way, it will be recognized that it is in the public interest to grant ranchers a long-term claim on continued use of the public lands. But in exchange for that recognition, ranchers must bring their private land into the negotiations. Right now ranchers claim that they protect the West from residential and resort development. The claim is false, as we can see by looking at all the subdividing and resort development that has taken place on former ranch land.

There is no reason why taxpayers in general or Westerners in particular should give ranchers a privileged position on the public lands unless the ranchers give the public guarantees about development of their private lands. A start in this direction was made at the Colorado negotiations, where a rancher offered to guarantee non-development of his private lands for the tenure of his grazing permit. In other words, if he got a 15-year grazing permit, he would grant a 15-year non-development easement.

Ranchers argue that there is an indissoluble link between their private lands and the public lands their animals graze. They believe they have a special claim on the public lands while, we, the public, are supposed to keep our hands strictly off their private lands. In reality, the links between the private, base property and the public lands must be made to run in both directions.

The decision to hold the Colorado negotiations was only the first of many tough, divisive choices that lie ahead. Environmentalists, for example, will have to decide whether to abandon their goal of evicting cattle from the public land. They will have to come to terms with the fact that the ranching community is a tight-knit, effective group that someday will prove to be an invaluable ally.

And ranchers will have to decide whether they are truly loyal to the land and to multiple generations on the land, or whether their real loyalty is to "private property rights," which is code for eventually selling out to subdividers for top dollar.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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