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Ecologists and Ranchers Try to Mend Fences


CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Bumping down the streets of this high country tourist mecca this summer, a pickup hauled a large cardboard model of a condominium being chased by a herd of stampeding cows. Titled "Cows Not Condos," it was the sort of statement you might expect in a fast-changing Western town where cowboys feel like they're the ones being stampeded.

Cowboys, however, had nothing to do with the model. This was the work of the High Country Citizens Alliance, a 16-year-old environmental group that until now has devoted its efforts to fighting mining and logging interests and campaigning for wilderness preserves along the western front of the Colorado Rockies.

The 350-member Alliance is one of several environmentally minded groups, journals and scholars across the West who have begun to rethink a decade-long animosity toward cattle and their keepers. Just as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other urban-based environmental organizations are applauding higher grazing fees and other range reforms proposed recently by the Clinton Administration, groups such as the High Country Alliance are having second thoughts.

Many environmentalists who live in the rural West say Clinton's approach to range management lacks incentives for ranchers to stay on the land. And despite the ravaged range that is part of the cowboy's legacy, environmental revisionists warn that if ranchers leave, the future of the open spaces and the wild species who inhabit them will be bleaker than in the past.

Increasingly, the cowboy, that tarnished icon of American mythology, is being viewed as a potential ally against the relentless encroachment of subdivisions, shopping centers, golf courses and mass tourism.

"No one is denying the impact that overgrazing has had on native grasses, or water quality or wildlife," said Susan Lohr, a member of the Alliance and director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, a 60-year-old nonprofit institution that studies the region's plants and animals. "But what cattle do to the ground is renewable. A building boom is not. You don't go back to nature after the roads are in and the houses are up."

For the past three years, the Rocky Mountain region has led the nation in population and employment growth and in housing construction. Even before the boom, there were indications that ranching was in decline. Across the West, the amount of land devoted to farming and ranching shrunk by about 5% during the 1980s, and the number of ranchers grazing cattle and sheep on federal land dropped by 15%, said range economist Fred Obermiller of the National Cattle Assn.

In Gunnison County, surrounding Crested Butte, officials estimate that 20% of private ranchland was gobbled up by new subdivisions during the past decade.

The changing landscape is prompting some environmentalists to break ranks with a movement that has sought to drive cattle off the western range. "I guess you could say I subscribed to the 'Cattle Free by '93' mentality, when I moved out here," said Gary Sprung, president of the High Country Citizens Alliance. "I don't hold that view anymore."

An avid mountain biker, Sprung moved to Colorado from Chicago 17 years ago. Now, he says, he worries as much about the impact of bicyclists careening through the nearby Maroon Bells Wilderness as he does about cattle. Sprung's attachment to the West also distinguishes him from environmentalists who tend to focus on ecosystems. "I like the old, abandoned cabins, the piles of rusting farm machinery, the manure and the beat-up pickups," he said.

The High Country Alliance is one of a handful of environmental groups that have begun to work with their rancher neighbors in an effort to find mutually acceptable approaches to range reform. Discussing their efforts, members of the Alliance make it clear they want to protect the makeup of rural communities as well as look after the land.

"Human diversity is as important as biodiversity," Lohr said. "Drive the ranchers out and you're left with a monoculture--recreationalists and affluent second-homers who are rarely here long enough to get to know the land, let alone take care of it." (Second homes are so widespread around Crested Butte, say county officials, that 60% of the tax assessment bills are sent to out-of-state addresses.)

Officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior defend the new set of range management proposals--which more than doubles grazing fees for ranchers using public land, preempts ranchers' traditional ownership of water rights on public land, and cuts leases from 10 years to five for ranchers who do not follow federal range management guidelines.

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