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The Planet

The Planet


Babbitt's Grazing Plan Strays Far from Reform

The Planet, July 1994, Volume 1, number 1

By Neil Hamilton

The Sierra Club applauded President Clinton when he promised last year to overhaul century-old grazing practices on public lands. But the administration's follow-up efforts have been branded weak-kneed, beginning with the president's capitulation to Western senators over the inclusion of reforms in his economic package.

Sierra Club leaders say the administration's most recent grazing plan, released earlier this year, has features worth supporting, but still strays far from the original goals of reform.

"The original idea behind reform was to make grazing pay its own way and begin the restoration and protection of public lands devastated by more than a century of largely unrestricted grazing," said Rose Strickland, chair of the Sierra Club's grazing subcommittee. "With this proposal, we're getting close to doing neither."

The Interior Department's recently released draft environmental impact statement represents the outcome of months of meetings between Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Western ranchers, environmentalists and elected of finials.

"The myth of the Marlboro man"

Sierra Club members are urged to respond to the plan during the comment period, which ends July 28. Club leaders say the plan should:

  1. Raise fees to match what ranchers pay on private lands.
  2. Include minimum federal standards and guidelines to ensure that environmentally sound grazing practices are implemented nationwide. Under Babbitt's proposal, states would be allowed to set standards for maintaining federal rangeland, as long as they meet four broad national requirements.
  3. Authorize the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to place environmentally sensitive lands off-limits to grazing.
  4. Make the new advisory committees experimental, so that they can be eliminated if ineffective.

Fees are the most concrete symbol of the administration's retreat from it's original bold proposal. Currently, monthly fees for grazing a cow and its calf, five sheep or a horse are set at less than $2--a fraction of the rates charged by private landowners.

Last year, with an eye to cutting what amounts to a $20 million annual subsidy, Clinton proposed raising the rate to $5 per head by 1997. Pressure from Western senators and governors has steadily shaved the figure down to below $4--with numerous exceptions and abatements that could shrink the rate hike even further.

"At that rate, the fees won't even cover the cost of administering the grazing program," said Strickland.

The erosion of fee increases, however, is only one of environmentalists' objections to the plan. changing environmentally destructive grazing practices and withdrawing fragile lands from grazing have been the thrust of environmentalists' calls for reform.

One of' the biggest obstacles in the past to changing grazing practices were the rancher-dominated grazing advisory boards. So environmentalists celebrated last August when Babbitt proposed abolishing the boards.

But Babbitt's substitute--15-member local advisory committees composed of ranchers, environmentalists and state and local officials--raises new concerns. Johanna Wald, another member of the grazing subcommittee and an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, predicts the advisory groups, despite the revamping, will still be dominated by ranchers and their backers.

Changing grazing practices should not be such a herculean task, said Strickland. Cattle grazed on public lands account for just 2 percent of the nation's livestock, and the value of grazing to local economies continues to shrink as Western states diversify. Still, reformers may be fighting a force greater than statistics.

"We're up against the myth of the cowboy, the Marlboro man," said Strickland. "It's a vision of a West that probably never existed and certainly doesn't exist today, but people don't want to believe the truth--that public land grazing is dominated by corporations and heavily subsidized by taxpayers."

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