Utilizing Public Land

AMERICANS see the government-controlled land of the United States - especially the vast Western holdings - as "our land." And it is.

Millions flock to the great outdoors yearly to use, or just look at, its natural features. But the beauty of these areas has seldom been matched by their economic prosperity.

Thus, over the decades, the "landlord" - the federal government - has generally charged less than "market value" for logging, mining and cattle-raising, recreation, and water use.

Many of those utilizing this subsidy regard it as a virtual right.

There is no lack of critics of this situation, but so far few have expressed their dissent forcefully.

Now, Bruce Babbitt, the new US secretary of the interior, with the support of President Clinton, plans to put the situation into balance.

With solid Western credentials as a former governor of Arizona, Mr. Babbitt may be just the man for the job. He has strong support from conservation organizations.

Babbitt argues that putting fees for exploiting federal resources on a more realistic basis will assure that those using the resources will do so in a more responsible way. For example, charging closer to market value for grazing rights will discourage overgrazing.

Cattle graze on federal land for about a fifth of what their owners would have to pay commercially.

Babbitt also sees environmental gain from the more realistic use charges: some $1 billion over a five-year period for restoring wildlife habitat and other natural features.

Opposition to the change is already being voiced by some Western state politicians, who speak of the creation of "ghost towns."

Clearly, responsible national officials - Babbitt, Mr. Clinton, and others, from the West as well as the East - do not intend to keep cattlemen, miners, or loggers from utilizing and even making a profit on federal land.

But it is reasonable to expect the users to pay sensible fees.

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