How the West was auctioned

In new tactic, environmentalists in Arizona try to outbid ranchers to protect state land.

Cotton Basinger hooks a thumb into his belt, and gazes out over the cactus-and cottonwood-dotted valley where he has grazed cattle for 50 years. Like others in this rural, southern Arizona settlement of windmills, barbed-wire, and pickup trucks, he's angry that environmentalists recently were able to outbid another local rancher to lease 162 acres of prime, state-owned grazing land just down the hill.

In May, New Mexico-based Forest Guardians offered about $2,000 per year for the picturesque riverside habitat, which the group plans to restore. It marks the first time in Arizona that nonranchers have been allowed to compete for coveted state grazing leases. But to Mr. Basinger, it's all part of a long-term agenda. "They're just going to make it too expensive to ranch anymore," he says. "And that's exactly what the environmentalists want."

Mr. Basinger may be right. Western public-lands ranchers have long been targeted by environmental groups, who claim that cattle grazing destroys ecosystems, isn't competitive with Midwestern factory farms, and only survives through government subsidies.

But now, after years of fighting ranchers over stewardship of public lands in the courts, local public hearings, and statehouses, environmentalists are turning to their wallets at auctions. Their approach may be summed up as: 'If you can't beat 'em, outbid 'em.'

In Arizona, the Forest Guardians went to court to win bidding rights on state- trust lands. But the strategy may find wider support in Congress. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D) of Arizona and Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut plan to introduce legislation for a voluntary buyout program, aimed at ranchers who decide to relinquish their grazing permits on federal lands.

But breaking the ranchers' stranglehold on public lands isn't easy, says Jon Marvel, director of the Western Watersheds Project, an Idaho-based group that is part of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a coalition that lobbies against public-lands ranching.

"What we have across the West is a political problem, where the 'lords of yesterday' have been in charge a long time, are accustomed to being in charge, have never seen a free market that they like, and would prefer to prevent market forces from affecting their continued control over most of the land in the west - public, state, and private."

Ranching groups hold positions closer to Mr. Basinger's. While the National Cattlemen's Beef Association isn't pressuring its 30,000 members to oppose the buyout proposal, "we don't support a federal policy that would encourage the dismantling of the infrastructure needed for ranching out West," says Jeff Eisenberg, the group's director of federal lands.

For a rancher with 300 head of cattle, the program would offer about $260,000 to retire grazing permits on federal property owned by agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. If all of the 27,000 ranchers on federal lands accepted the buy-out, it could cost the government up to $1.5 billion. But environmentalists counter that subsidizing ranching through below-market grazing fees and other costs already carries a yearly price tag of roughly $460 million.

The buyout proposal would probably attract many ranchers weary of an ongoing drought and fluctuating market prices. The market-based approach is driving some of the industry's allies into a corner, says Donald Leal of the Political Economy Research Center, a Montana group that advocates a property-rights solutions for the environment. Conservatives wholly support free markets, "unless it involves ranching," he says. "Then they do a turnaround, and start arguing for government intervention."

The debate over state-trust lands is a bit different. Granted in territorial times by the federal government to help fund schools, trust lands are required to generate maximum revenues - a requirement that environmentalists argue should lead to leases being awarded to the highest bidder. Arizona's Supreme Court agreed and, in May, the State Land Department awarded the Elgin-area parcel to Forest Guardians.

Still, the group's success may not be duplicated in other Western states. For example, Oregon and California have already sold off most of their trust lands. With only 640,000 acres left, Oregon courts have rejected several legal challenges by the Oregon Natural Desert Association to open these remaining parcels to environmental groups.

In the Forest Guardians' case, the group targeted their limited funds on Arizona's most attractive trust lands. "We're focused on getting the biggest biological gain for our buck, and in this case, it involves a nice perennial stream and well-forested area," says John Horning, the group's director

But to Jake Flake (R), speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, groups such as Forest Guardians simply "cherry-pick the best parts of the land, and outbid the ranchers." He says that the public often "don't recognize the importance of cattle ranchers as stewards of the land. When cattle are removed, the land starts deteriorating."

That's certainly the way rancher Cotton Basinger sees it. Worse yet, he fears that a unique way of life will soon disappear as well. The environmentalists "wanted that land and they got it," he says bitterly. "Now they're going to try to take all of it. And once they get it, that's the end of ranching, period."

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