Land-Use Measures Meet Strong Resistance in West

Move to double grazing fees, tighter rein on water rights on federal lands signals new strategy toward public land management in the West

JACK TURNELL would like to have President Clinton over for T-bone steaks - and some straight talk.

The Wyoming rancher is chafing at the Clinton administration's proposal to more than double grazing fees on federal lands, which he says will "pinch" his pocketbook. But more than the money, he is worried about the government's plan to control water rights and other public land use.

"We are moving toward bureaucratic dictatorship," says the Meeteetse, Wyo., livestock owner.

Across the West, the laments are similar. Ranchers, farmers, and others who use federal lands are kicking like a stallion in the wake of the administration's plan to change grazing practices.

They vow a renewed fight in Congress and perhaps the courts. They predict doom for family ranchers - and the communities they support.

But environmentalists and other supporters of the new policy contend it is a step toward limiting overgrazing that they say has harmed wildlife, forests, and streams - and will save the country money to boot.

The proposed changes, announced by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Monday, would raise the fee for an animal unit month (the amount of forage for a cow and calf or five sheep for one month) from the current $1.86 to $4.28 over three years. Grazing guidelines

He also announced new guidelines designed to end overgrazing and ensure that ranchers take measures to protect the federal land they use. The government intends to take ownership of water rights on federal holdings as well as any improvements made on the land.

The changes are part of a broad shift in the way the Clinton administration wants to manage more than 260 million acres of public land in the West.

It is moving away from a century of federal policy that promoted development through government subsidies and toward an ethic in which public-land users - miners, timber companies, farmers - will pay more for the resources they exploit.

The administration first signaled its intention to reshape federal land policy in its budget proposal in February. But it backed off in the face of protests from Western Democratic senators.

Environmentalists applaud the general direction the White House is moving but are waiting to see the fine print. They believe, for instance, that the grazing reforms will lead to less damage of public land but say the rules have gaps - notably, they don't prohibit grazing on poor lands or correct abuses of the past.

"It is a good start," says Joanne Carter of the Wilderness Society in Denver. "But the conservation measures need fleshing out."

Ranchers don't need any fine print to know where they stand. They believe the higher fees will drive livestock owners out of business. The current fee has been widely criticized as a giveaway because it is one-fifth of what private landowners charge.

But ranchers argue that private land is generally far better grazing land and usually contains fences, roads, and other improvements that public holdings often don't.

"It is like comparing a furnished and an unfurnished apartment," says Bill Myers of the Public Lands Council, a group that represents ranchers with federal grazing permits.

The fee changes will fall hardest on livestock owners who are most dependent on public lands for grazing and who are running marginal operations to begin with. Sheep ranchers in particular are expected to feel the pinch, since they have faced several years of depressed lamb and wool prices. Family permits

Some 23,000 families hold federal permits in 14 states across the West. Of the 9,000 ranches in New Mexico, 6,000 operate with less than 100 head of cattle, and half of those operations depend on public lands for most of their grazing.

"These small guys who are heavily federal dependent are going to take the brunt of the impact," says John Fowler, an agricultural economist at New Mexico State University.

To avoid the increases, some operators are expected to try to get by on just their private holdings. "Over time, it could alter the way economies develop in the West and what land is used for," says Paul Gutierrez, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University.

As opposed as they are to fee increases, ranchers bristle just as much at the government's plan to take over water rights and impose other controls.

The proposed reforms have to go through a public hearings, which opponents may attend in herd-size crowds.

Ranchers are also backing an alternative grazing proposal by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D) of Colorado that would raise fees a more modest 25 percent.

"The issue is not dead," says Dr. Fowler. "This is a last stand for the industry."

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