The West's grazing war grinds on

 

After a new round of public hearings, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's attempt at a political compromise on grazing reform appears dead.

The proposal - partly developed in negotiations between Babbitt, ranchers and environmentalists in Colorado last winter - would raise fees and tighten ecological standards for ranchers who graze livestock on public lands. At the same time, it would oversee reforms through local advisory councils and allow ranchers to keep some current privileges.

However, ranchers have rejected the plan.

In 48 simultaneous public hearings held across the West and in Washington, D.C., June 8, Babbitt and top federal land managers saw their draft regulations and environmental impact statement ripped to shreds. As at last year's hearings on grazing reform, ranchers dominated virtually every meeting. And, like last year, ranchers denounced the reform compromise as an attack on rural Westerners.

"The government is trying to take our livelihood, our rights, and our dignity," testified Steve Lucas, a Paradise Valley, Nev., rancher, at the Reno hearing. "We can't live with it."

"This is the most threatening ordeal our family has faced in five generations of ranching," Jona DeLong, of Imlay, Nev., said. "Every regulation is against the rancher."

In Casper, Rawlins and Rock Springs, Wyo., a parade of ranchers blocked what few environmentalists there were from mounting the podium. Ranchers accused Babbitt of trying to drive ranchers off the land, stealing water rights, and waging a heartless "War on the West."

In Albuquerque, N.M., ranchers wore black armbands, and one speaker threatened to personally stop any federal officials who interfered with his cattle operation. The rancor and bitterness were repeated in hearings in Grand Junction and Caûon City, Colo., in Pocatello and Salmon, Idaho, in Butte and Miles City, Mont., La Grande, Ore., Wenatchee, Wash., and other rural Western towns.

"If Mr. Babbitt was listening, he heard 98 percent of the people out there tell him these reforms were a bad idea," said Bill Myers, the National Cattlemen's Association director of federal lands in Washington, D.C.

Myers warned that if Babbitt doesn't change his proposed reforms - in particular the doubling of grazing fees - the livestock industry will go back to the Senate, or federal court.

So far, Babbitt hasn't blinked. "Those who continue to fire rhetorical charges and use scare tactics simply don't get it," Babbitt retorted during an appearance in Denver the day after the hearings, reported the Portland Oregonian. "The fact is, grazing reform is good for ranching communities and it's good for the American West."

Babbitt may be able to stand firm this time. Last fall, ranchers dominated front pages nationwide. But coverage of this spring's hearings was buried inside newspapers' second sections, even in the West.

Western politicians have also backed off. Babbitt's reform plan was almost universally opposed by the West's governors last year, but he now enjoys support from Democrats Roy Romer in Colorado and Cecil Andrus in Idaho.

"The administration has come a long way towards meeting reasonable Western interests," said Andrus spokesman Scott Peyron. "We now have a pretty sound plan on the table."

At the hearing in Butte, Mont., Gov. Marc Racicot told both ranchers and environmentalists that the time had come to end the rhetoric and find fair solutions.

The industry's strength in Congress has also faded. Republican senators, including Pete Domenici, N.M., Malcolm Wallop, Wyo., Dirk Kempthorne, Idaho, Hank Brown, Colo., and Conrad Burns, Mont., still beat the "War on the West" drum. But key Democrats who helped filibuster reform in the Senate last fall, such as Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Max Baucus of Montana, are neutral thus far.

In a letter to Babbitt, Campbell asked the administration to moderate grazing fee increases, but supported changes in water rights language, public participation and other reforms.

On the House side, a three-to-one majority favors even higher grazing fees and stronger environmental reforms.

But there has been a casualty on the road to change. The chance of negotiating a compromise with national environmental groups - and thereby avoiding appeals and litigation - appears lost.

Babbitt's compromise reform proposal, negotiated with both local and national environmental groups, included a decentralized, on-the-ground approach as an alternative to centralized, command-and-control regulations (HCN, 2/7/94).

Arizona attorney Joe Feller, who helped win the Comb Wash case, sees the new regulations as a noticeable, but not major, strengthening of the BLM's ability to manage grazing and environmentalists' ability to force change. He dismissed the importance of the reform's collaborative mechanisms.

After the June 8 hearings, Tom Dougherty, Western regional director of the National Wildlife Federation and a participant in the Colorado roundtable, pronounced the spirit of the negotiations dead.

"I'm one of the people that modified my views and called for a broader base of people and a collaborative approach. I helped convince the National Wildlife Federation of that," says Dougherty. "Yet even the people who participated in the process are back to the old rhetoric about the war on the West."

Dougherty and Maggie Fox, who represented the Sierra Club in the Colorado roundtable, say that while environmental groups will continue to participate in the administration's reform effort, the bulk of their efforts will now go to litigation.

That, Dougherty adds, is a tragedy. "The most likely allies on behalf of healthy ground are the environmentalists and the ranchers," he says. "But until there is an acceptance by the ranchers that the public lands are exactly that - public lands - and until the public is given an equal role in management, this conflict will continue."

A striking example of the power of litigation is the National Wildlife Federation court victory that forced the Bureau of Land Management to remove all cows from canyons on the Comb Wash grazing allotment in southern Utah (HCN, 1/24/94).

Some other recent cases include lawsuits by the Oregon Natural Resources Council over violations of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act from cattle grazing on the Malheur National Forest; appeals by Gila Watch over the 230-square-mile Diamond Bar allotment in southern New Mexico; a National Wildlife Federation challenge against grazing management in the Beaverhead National Forest in Montana; and a challenge to the transfer of grazing permits in south-central Oregon (see article below).

Hinchman is staff reporter for HCN; Mensing is an intern at HCN's Great Basin bureau.

Comments on the Department of Interior's proposed grazing reform regulations must be sent by July 28, 1994. Comments on the agency's Draft EIS are due by Aug. 11, 1994. Send comments to: Rangeland Reform "94, P.O. Box 66300, Washington, D.C. 20035-6300.

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