RANCHERS in the West find themselves at their most important political juncture since the 1930s - maybe since the days of frontier cattle drives and Indian wars.
Western lawmakers hope to head off Clinton administration steps to rein in ranchers, including regulations scheduled to go into effect next week that shift the focus of federal rangeland policy from livestock production to overall productivity of the land.
Plans by Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and Rep. Wes Cooley (R) of Oregon would give more control to those who for generations have been using millions of acres of public land in the West to raise cattle and sheep. These bills favored by the National Cattlemen's Association and other industry groups also accept a 30 percent hike in fees paid to graze on federal land.
''Ranchers have accepted that there will be change,'' says sheep rancher Truman Julian of Kemmerer, Wyo., whose family first homesteaded in the 1880s.
But a mix of environmentalists, state land managers, range experts, and conservative economists has raised objections. Most important in these days of budgetary restraint may be the latter, including experts at the Washington-based Cato Institute who recently blasted low grazing fees as ''cowboy socialism.''
Early in the Clinton administration, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt pushed for higher grazing fees and stiffer controls over herd size, water use, and land conditions. That represented the most comprehensive attempt to change federal policy since the landmark Taylor Grazing Act of 1934.
But the White House backed down on part of the plan when Western senators (Democrats as well as Republicans) balked. This in turn prompted then-Bureau of Land Management (BLM) director Jim Baca to resign in protest over what he saw as administration capitulation to special interests.
Since then, Mr. Babbitt has sought to work closely with state and local officials on range issues while deemphasizing the importance of grazing fees as a tool for reform. But this has failed to satisfy many ranchers and their conservative champions in Congress. Congressman Cooley, a rancher representing a sparsely populated district in Oregon, calls Rangeland Reform '94 (the Clinton plan) an ''ominous proposal'' and ranchers' ''greatest fear.''
Domenici and Cooley say their bills move in the direction of providing more public input to federal policy while fixing grazing fees at a level (6 percent of gross income) that is fair and predictable. Agricultural economist John Fowler of New Mexico State University says this amounts to a ''comprehensive package of incentives to promote long-run resource stewardship and continued improvement of federal range condition.''
But in unusually blunt congressional testimony recently, BLM acting-director Mike Dombeck said this legislation ''turns back the clock on rangeland management.''
First, Dr. Dombeck told a House hearing, ''the grazing bill focuses public rangeland management on the single use of livestock grazing - deemphasizing other uses and values of the public lands such as mining, hunting, recreation, and wildlife.'' And, he added, ''the bill would severely limit public involvement in the management of the public lands.''
Others have been critical as well. ''The legislation gives the ranching interests far too much say in determining the appropriate grazing uses of federal public land,'' says Ray Powell, commissioner of public lands for New Mexico. ''It specifically excludes the voices of the vast majority of Westerners - those who have genuine respect and love for the land but who do not make their living directly from it or actively monitor its uses.''
''If it becomes law,'' says Arizona State University law professor Joseph Feller, ''it would ... roll back the management of public lands to an earlier era, when they were considered worthless for any purpose other than livestock grazing.''
In response to such criticisms, Domenici offered some changes to his proposal during recent Senate committee meetings, and House sponsors are expected to follow suit. During the congressional summer break, the New Mexico Republican is meeting with environmentalists and others as well.
''He obviously retreated, but he hasn't given up at all,'' says Tom Lustig, who works for the National Wildlife Federation in Colorado and tracks the issue closely.
Meanwhile, the issue of public-lands grazing in the West - which directly affects 27,000 ranchers - is coming under scrutiny from other quarters.
Early this year, the Washington-based National Taxpayers Union joined environmental groups in reporting that fair-market grazing fees could save the federal government as much as $150 million a year. More recently, the Cato Institute reported that ''livestock grazing is big government business - and an expensive business at that.''
''Subsidies to livestock producers help keep the most marginal - and often most environmentally fragile - lands in production by raising incomes and lowering costs sufficiently to justify levels of grazing that would not otherwise be cost-effective or ecologically sound,'' write Cato fellow Karl Hess and New Mexico State University range scientist Jerry Holechek. ''They transform bad management into profitable management by distorting cost/benefit ratios.''