Ranchers fight to ward off changes in how grazing fees are set. They are wary of higher fees and loss of influence

Environmentalists and Western cattle ranchers are keeping an eye on 11th-hour congressional negotiations that will determine the price of permits for grazing on public lands. The Public Rangelands Improvement Act (PRIA) of 1978, which established the fees now being charged, expires Dec. 31.

If Congress does not pass a new law or a resolution to continue existing law, the secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and Interior will set the price for public land grazing permits.

Cattle ranchers are lobbying hard to encourage Congress to leave the current fee formula in place. They say there is a good chance grazing fees will rise if the Agriculture and Interior Departments take over pricing. Increasing the price ranchers pay for grazing animals on federal lands would mean the already struggling industry would probably lose yet more profitability, beef and lamb prices would rise, or a mixture of both.

An aide to Sen. Jim McClure (R) of Idaho, one of the congressmen working on a draft of the new public lands bill, said last week that there is little chance a new bill will see the floor of either the House or the Senate by the end of this year. He said a continuing resolution was more likely.

Negotiations and hearings on a bill to replace PRIA have been going on since October 1984. The replacement is now in its third draft.

Environmental groups are seeking protection for riparian habitats (the wet areas around springs and streams), increased grazing fees, and changes in the regional boards that advise the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on its range improvement programs.

A Washington, D.C., representative for the Sierra Club, Debby Sease, says the club has worked for the elimination of the local advisory boards, because it sees them as a government-supported, single-interest group built into the range-management process.

The National Cattleman's Association has agreed to some protections for riparian habitats. But they oppose changes in the structure of the advisory boards, which they feel are necessary to ensure that local ranchers have control over how their fees are spent on local rangeland.

Ms. Sease said last week that the fees charged to Western ranchers do not even pay the cost of the BLM and Forest Service's range-management programs and low fees lead to grazing on land that is easily damaged by overgrazing.

She says 1983 Forest Service figures show that their range-management program cost them 2.7 times more to run than they collected in fees. Comparing the fee set under current law with a fair-market value fee for the land, the government's fee structure has amounted to a $578.58 million subsidy of the cattle industry in recent years, says Sease.

But Ronald Michieli, director of Natural Resources for the National Cattleman's Association, says those figures do not take into account the improvements to public lands paid for by ranchers. Fences and irrigation systems are among the expenses ranchers incur when they run their cattle on public lands, Mr. Michieli says.

Furthermore, the National Inholders Association, a nonprofit public-interest association that protects the right of Americans on lands owned or regulated by the government, says the agencies responsible for funds collected for grazing fees, overspent on ``nonranching activities.'' Approximately 2.7 times more than the fees collected was spent on planning, inventory, and recreation and wildlife-habitat rehabilitation programs, according to the association's newletter.

Ranchers say that a program of alternate grazing and rest on rangeland improves the quality of public grasslands. And, the majority of ranchers do not overgraze the public lands they have permits for, says Tom Hovendon of the Idaho Cattle Association says.

Michieli said he expects the Reagan administration to apply its rules on the cost effectiveness of fee programs to grazing fees. ``Really, the key to it is what the Office of Management and Budget will do,'' Michieli said. The OMB leans heavily on agencies with fee programs to see that they are balancing out.

This year, cattlemen pay $1.35 per month for an Animal Unit Month (AUM), the amount of rangeland required to feed one cow or about five sheep for a month. Depending on the quality of the browse on the land, an AUM can take in from two to 30 acres, according to BLM officials. That price is derived from a formula that takes into account the cost of leasing similar, privately owned rangeland; the price of beef cattle; and the current cost of various items crucial to livestock production.

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