Rights to the Range

WESTERN ranchers, rugged and independent, are fixtures in American culture. Their livelihood, always arduous and subject to vagaries of weather and markets, has grown even more difficult of late, with beef prices plunging.

Equally disturbing to many ranchers are what they view as efforts to weaken their right to use millions of acres of publicly owned rangeland.

It's not surprising, then, that Western congressmen and senators have taken up the ranchers' cause. A bill recently approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Rangeland Management Act, attempts to make the ranchers' lives easier by keeping heavily subsidized grazing fees low far into the future and, no less important, by putting the oversight of the public range more squarely into the hands of those who've used it longest and most intensively - the ranchers themselves.

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If every rancher were as sensitive to land-use and conservation needs as many are, that might not be a problem. But cattle grazing has the potential to utterly denude the land and damage valuable watersheds. Enough examples of just such overuse exist to justify continued close scrutiny by the Bureau of Land Management and other public agencies. And, yes, by environmental and conservation groups who also have an intense feel for these lands and should have a say in how they are managed.

Under the Senate rangeland management bill, that say would be concentrated in regional councils dominated by ranchers.

The Bureau of Land Management points out that this is a formula for litigation, as groups with an interest in public lands, but no other way to make it heard, will head to the courts. The BLM also points out that ranching, while a very important use of these lands, is not the only use. Hunters, campers, miners, and others should be heard too, and should be held to the same standards of sound land use.

The Interior Department, led by Secretary Bruce Babbitt, has formulated new land-use standards designed to enhance the long-term health of public lands. They include steps to give ranchers greater leeway to apply conservation methods to restore overgrazed areas. Over the years, the current permitting system has actually encouraged ranchers to maximize grazing, which exhausts the land.

The legislation being propelled by congressional allies of ranchers could perpetuate and deepen that tendency, to the future detriment of both ranchers themselves and other users. This legislation may aim at thwarting the reforms under way at Interior. But if its backers' true aims are the long-term viability of Western ranching and continued public support (and even affection) for that way of life, it could badly miss its mark.

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