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Weaning West's Ranchers Off 'Cowboy Socialism' : Grazing rule changes by Babbitt set the stage for showdown in Congress

August 27, 1995

It drew little public attention, but last Monday marked a milestone in the history of the American West. On that day Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, over 17 Western senators' pleas for delay, imposed new rules to tighten livestock grazing management on 177 million acres of federal land in 14 states supervised by the Bureau of Land Management. The rules rightly lessened the grip that ranchers have long held on these lands.

Babbitt's action sets the stage for a major confrontation in Congress in the fall. The outcome could well have a significant effect on BLM and other federal lands that total 350 million acres in the West, covering about half the region and 46% of California. The use and even the ownership of these rugged lands have become contentious political issues in recent years as the urbanization of the West has increased competition for access to them. Proponents of fishing, hunting, camping and other recreational uses have been pitted against ranchers, miners and loggers.

OUTRAGE AT DOMENICI BILL: In an attempt to block the Babbitt rules, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), the influential chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, offered a retrograde bill recently that would have locked in historical preferences for subsidized use of BLM land by cattle and sheep ranchers. Domenici has now dropped the bill in its current form, recognizing it could not pass even in this conservative Congress, despite being softened by amendments. It speaks volumes that intense opposition came not just from environmentalists but also from sportsmen, editorialists and others across the West who resented what they saw as an attempt to exclude the public from public lands.

Ironically, the ranchers--who pay only a fraction of the grazing fees charged on state or private lands--are backed primarily by conservative Western lawmakers who otherwise are almost religious in their opposition to government subsidies. Yet here they align with what Karl Hess of the conservative Cato Institute has aptly called "cowboy socialism." After feeding well at the public trough for generations, an extremist minority of ranchers are now even claiming that their long use confers on them a property right that cannot be altered without compensation for a government "taking." To use an old cowboy expression, what chutzpah. At the other absurd extreme, a fringe element of environmentalists is demanding that livestock be driven off public lands altogether. The National Cattlemen's Assn. wisely has not backed the property right claim, but it is suing to overturn the Babbitt rules.

Ranching is an old and honorable trade, but the notion of the lone rancher fighting the elements and a hostile government is outdated. The 19,000 ranchers who hold federal grazing permits represent only a few percent of the total, and often are wealthy absentee landlords. In Idaho, two California high-tech magnates, William R. Hewlett and David Packard, are embroiled in controversy over charges by environmentalists that their cattle have damaged streams and meadows on 100,000 acres of BLM land adjacent to their ranch.

Perhaps Babbitt's rules go too far in pressing for more ecologically sensitive range practices. But, though he gave up trying to raise fees, the rules do move closer to a market economy. They would permit ranchers to take overgrazed land out of use for up to 10 years and sell their permits temporarily to groups like the Nature Conservancy for restoration.

HISTORICAL SHIFT IN THE WEST: The issues often involve such arcane technical details as whether members of the "interested public" or just "affected interests" should be allowed a say in local grazing rules and whether ranchers should be charged extra fees if they sublease their grazing rights. But the larger issue pits the old against the new West. Domenici talks about the need to preserve a "historic way of life," and industry lobbyists stress recognizing the ranchers' need for stability. They complain that the new rules give no incentive to improve rangeland, because the government acquires title to any work done. Without access to federal lands, they say, many ranchers would be forced to sell off their lands for weekend "ranchettes" for urbanites.

There is validity to some of these arguments. But the West has changed and will change more. Ranching is a noble endeavor that produces a useful product. But ultimately it must function in a market economy and wean itself from government subsidies. Western lands cannot be locked up in near-perpetuity to protect a privileged part of an industry that accounts for only a tiny, and diminishing, fraction of the regional economy.

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