The inauguration of Bill Clinton in January 1993 held the promise of finally bringing
change to the range. Both Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt publicly advocated
grazing reforms. Polls showed a majority of Americans supported change. After decades of
frustration, the stars seemed to be aligned for a radical overhaul of the archaic rules
that govern livestock grazing on our public lands.
Eighteen months later, the complete overhaul has become a minor facelift. The Sierra
Club and other environmental groups are up in arms over an administration plan that would
do little to the existing system of subsidies and inadequate environmental protections.
Essentially, the Clinton administration was roped and tied by a small but powerful
group of Western ranchers and their friends in Congress. Babbitt made grazing the
centerpiece of his plan to reform public lands management, then became engaged in a war of
attrition with ranchers that has resulted in a proposal that is woefully inadequate.
In several areas Babbitt does make steps in the right direction. For example, water
rights on federal lands would remain in the hands of the federal government. This would
reverse a troublesome policy initiated by former Interior Secretary James Watt that allows
ranchers with federal grazing permits to gain control of water rights on federal lands.
In the month's following release of the plan, the Sierra Club and other environmental
groups bombarded the Interior Department with extensive comments outlining areas needing
strengthening. Specifically, we asked the administration to: raise fees to market level,
hold ranchers to a set of environmental standards, allow federal lands managers to
withdraw environmentally sensitive lands from grazing and make new advisory councils
experimental. None of these are reflected in Rangeland Reform '94, the administration's
package of proposed regulatory changes and draft environmental impact statement. The
administration proposal would:
- Raise fees by only a token amount. Current fees for grazing on public lands, set at
under $2 monthly for a cow and calf, are only a fraction of lease rates on private lands.
Last year, Clinton proposed raising the rate to $5 by 1997. Pressure from Western senators
and ranchers has shaved this to below $4. Numerous exceptions and abatements would shrink
the rate hike even further.
- Sets vague and unenforceable guidelines for Bureau of Land Management lands. Under the
Babbitt proposal, each state's BLM director would be free to set management policy on
federal lands as long as it complied with four broad national requirements. There's too
much room for abuse in such a scheme. We need minimum federal standards and guidelines to
ensure that environmentally sound grazing practices are implemented nationwide for both
BLM lands and national forests.
- Ties the hands of federal lands managers from withdrawing environmentally sensitive
lands from grazing. Contrary to what many in the ranching community say, the Sierra Club
is not opposed to grazing on public lands. But we do oppose grazing when it compromises
the integrity of the rangeland ecosystem by degrading riparian areas, destroying the
habitat of native plants and animals, polluting water sources and eroding soil. With more
than 65 percent of public rangelands in a degraded state, it would seem obvious that some
lands are simply not suitable for grazing.
- Substitutes one rancher-dominated advisory body for another. The grazing advisory
boards, made up of local ranchers, were infamous for bullying local BLM officials.
Babbitt, who abolished the boards last year, has proposed as a substitute a complicated
and expensive three-tier advisory committee system. While environmentalists are guaranteed
a seat at the table, our fear is that these, too, will come to be dominated by ranchers.
The best way to find out is to make the new committees experimental so that they can be
abolished if proved ineffective.
The administration is expected to soon release its final regulations, but the battle
for true grazing reform is far from over. The Sierra Club, long accustomed to locking
horns with Western politicians over grazing reform, is in for the long haul. With grazing
representing a steadily shrinking portion of the West's economy, ending the heavy
subsidies and environmental damages of grazing is only a matter of time.
Contact Rose Strickland at (702) 329-6118; or Kirk Koepsel in the Northern Plains field
office at (307) 672-0425.
SOURCE: Rose Strickland, chair, Sierra Club Grazing Subcommittee. Published originally in
The Planet, November 1994
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