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Babbitt Tries Again to Reform Grazing Rules, Raise Fees : Ranching: Third proposal fails to please environmentalists or livestock producers. But congressional sources say the plan will go into effect.

March 18, 1994|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Thursday announced his third attempt to reform use of federal lands by ranchers--a proposal that would double grazing fees--but neither environmentalists nor livestock producers were pleased.

Besides doubling fees that most ranchers pay to graze sheep and cattle on federal land, the plan would institute management reforms to improve the environmental health of the public ranges. But it also includes concessions sought by ranchers.

Environmentalists charged that the package falls short by failing to ban grazing and order restoration of some highly eroded lands. Some expressed concerns that the package would continue to give ranching communities the strongest voice in setting local standards for the environmental management of lands.

Ranchers, in addition to decrying fee increases, are furious that the proposal allows environmentalists residing outside their states to play a role in setting standards for them.

The ranchers, joined by several senators from Western states, also objected that the package would impose universal standards and guidelines for the management of national lands. While Babbitt said he had altered his plans so the guidelines would be more flexible, ranchers called them "cookie-cutter standards" that will not fit the peculiarities of individual states.

Despite the unhappiness, however, congressional observers predicted that the proposal would go into effect. It does not require congressional approval and could be in place by the end of this year, Babbitt said.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the proposal is not all he would like, but he praised it as an important step toward reform.

"This is not as sweeping as we would have preferred," he said. "But given the necessity of balancing very polarized interests, the secretary has done a very impressive job of negotiating these reforms, and we want to work with him to implement them. Nobody is 100% satisfied, but anyone who thinks nothing's been done here is not looking at the same set of regulations that we are."

An increase in grazing fees would end what many regard as government largess that has outlived its purpose of encouraging settlement in the Western states. Each new proposal for the fees, however, has whittled away at the size of the increase and slightly shrunk the scope of other reforms.

The latest package would charge most ranchers $3.96 to graze an "animal unit month"--a measure defined as five sheep or a cow and her calf grazing for a month--on most of the 272 million acres of grassland owned by the federal government. The fee increases would be phased in over three years.

Ranchers now pay as little as $1.86 per animal unit month, while government and private experts have assessed the monthly fair-market value of such use at $5 to $12. A proposal Babbitt put forth in August would have raised the rates to $4.28 in three years.

Under the new plan, the third year of hikes could be re-evaluated if, as ranchers charge, the increase has a "significant negative impact" on ranchers' operations. The proposal does not explain how those effects would be measured.

In an effort to give ranchers incentives to improve the environment of the grazing lands, Babbitt also would offer those who meet higher environmental standards a rate of $2.77 per animal unit month. The government has yet to decide on those higher standards.

Babbitt's latest proposal also would abolish grazing advisory boards, which are rancher-dominated groups that have effectively decided who could graze livestock on public lands and how.

Instead, those boards would be replaced by 15-member "multiple resource advisory councils." They would be made up of five environmentalists, five state or local officials or users of public lands and five representatives of the local commodity industries--such as grazing, mining or timber.

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