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The Planet

ISSUE FEATURE: Whatever Happened to Grazing Reform?

By Rose Strickland, Chair, Sierra Club Grazing Subcommittee

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.

So what happened?

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.

Discouraging Words Abound

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.

For more information:

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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