IN his travels around the West, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is confronting a set of traditions that have helped define America. And in a series of meetings on the future of public-lands ranching, Mr. Babbitt also is taking on a controversial issue with complex economic, environmental, and cultural dimensions.
The immediate question is this: Are ranchers who graze their livestock on millions of acres of federally owned land paying too little?
Critics say the $1.86 paid per "animal unit month" is far below what is paid by private leaseholders. (An animal unit is one cow and calf, one horse, or five sheep. The fee is based on a formula that includes the cost of production and commodity prices.) What is needed, says Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma, is "a good dose of free enterprise."
While most of the 30,000 or so Western ranching operations are small, family-owned businesses earning about $28,000 a year, the largest are corporations - including oil and insurance companies, feedlot operators, foreign-owned meat producers, and wealthy absentee owners. The General Accounting Office reported last week that the largest 500 permitholders control 29 million acres of United States Forest Service land - one-third of such land used for grazing.
Environmentalists add that cattle grazing in the arid West causes severe range damage, including muddy and polluted streams, erosion, and the introduction of noxious weeds. "We need to restore fully functioning ecosystems," says Rose Strickland, a Sierra Club public-lands specialist. "We need to strictly enforce public-lands law."
Others note that Western ranching - while it holds a major place in history and folklore - accounts for a small segment of US beef production. (About 20 percent when calves shipped to eastern feedlots are included.)
All of this has put Western ranchers on the defensive. But in a series of four hearings that began last Thursday in Bozeman, Mont., and will conclude this Thursday in Albuquerque, N.M., they seem to have found a friend in Interior Secretary Babbitt.
WHILE the Clinton ad-ministration at first proposed raising grazing fees as part of its 1994 budget, it backed off when Western lawmakers (mostly Democrats) raised a fuss. And as they did in the recent "timber summit" in Oregon, administration officials are paying heed to the human dimension of knotty economic and environmental problems.
"The president has an intense interest in finding a solution that ensures that family ranchers remain on the land and are not driven into extreme hardship," Babbitt said in opening the Reno, Nev., meeting Saturday.
Babbitt emphasizes that "the grazing issue is more about the condition of the land than the size of the grazing fee." Indeed, there is some question about how far off the current fee is. Ranchers argue that while privately leased land already includes costly things like water systems, roads, and fences, they must install and maintain such things on their federal permitted land.
Rangeland resource economist Frederick Obermiller of Oregon State University says that making public fees comparable to private leases would mean a grazing fee of $1.92 per animal unit month - what it was in 1992.
Over and over at the Reno meeting, ranchers also stressed their role as good land stewards. "Ranchers are hard-working caretakers of the land," said Lorin Moench of Salt Lake City, whose family has been ranching for 70 years. Increasingly, ranchers like "Doc" and Connie Hatfield of Brothers, Ore., are winning high praise from the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups for protecting their ri-parian areas and other important elements of wildlife habitat.
And ranch supporters also warned that raising grazing fees to the point that small ranches go out of business or are taken over by big corporations could be very harmful to many Western communities where ranching income pays for local services. It could also accelerate the selling off of what is now agriculturally productive land for housing subdivisions, said rancher Bart Topping of Madera, Calif.
But most ranchers also acknowledge that a more environmentally aware administration in Washington is going to mean a new era of federal land management and a likely fee increase of some sort.
Babbitt says he wants to link grazing fees with land stewardship "to create direct incentives for restoring the public lands to good condition."
While environmentalists were stung by the Clinton administration's go-slow shift on grazing fees, they agree that such fees are less important than ecosystem restoration.
After this set of meetings, Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy will work into the summer on a proposed administration policy, then send it out for public comment - after which a new round of meetings in the West will be held.