WESTERN ranchers are used to circling the wagons against environmentalists. Ever since comprehensive federal law on range management was passed more than 60 years ago, they've had to defend themselves in Congress and the courts against charges that cows and sheep are bad for the land.
But now they have a second band of opponents attacking on another front. This time it's conservative economists and free marketeers packing calculators to force change on an American tradition that has blended history and myth for more than a century.
The coalition of environmental and free-market groups says ranchers should ''pay the full cost of public-land ranching.'' But the groups also want ranchers to be able to ''rest'' their land for extended periods without the threat of losing their permits. And they advocate an open bidding system under which grazing permits could be acquired for purposes other than ranching.
The current system of selling permits to graze on 265 million acres of federal land across 11 Western states ''rewards the worst of ranchers, penalizes the best, and makes overgrazing a requirement of public law,'' says Karl Hess, a senior fellow at the fiscally conservative Cato Institute in Washington.
Legislation favored by ranchers and designed to head off stricter regulations proposed by the Clinton administration, adds Mr. Hess, ''will keep intact a grazing program that costs taxpayers millions per year and locks out 250 million Americans from acquiring rangeland permits for uses other than raising livestock.''
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, another Washington-based public-policy organization usually at odds with environmentalists, also has joined with a long list of generally liberal environmental and tax-reform groups to urge fundamental change.
This call for reform and suggestions of how to make rangeland management adhere to free-market ideals are to be presented to members of Congress this week. ''They are principles that both Republicans and Democrats can and should support,'' says Johanna Wald, senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council.
Beyond cowboy control
What the complicated and emotion-laden issue comes down to is this: Should anybody - not just cowboys - be able to have direct control over Western rangeland? Should someone with the financial wherewithal - a conservation group, for example - be able to acquire a long-term grazing permit and then set aside the land for wildlife habitat?
Ranchers, who typically hold renewable 10-year permits for many years, sometimes generations, have been resisting the notion of opening permit bidding to a freer market. In Idaho, Gov. Phil Batt (R) recently signed a law restricting such bidding to ranchers. The law is being challenged, and the state Supreme Court is expected to settle the issue later this year.
In the overall scheme of things, public-lands ranching in the West would seem to be a minor economic issue. Only about 23,000 businesses and individuals hold grazing permits on often-marginal land left over from homesteading days.
Such ranches produce less than 3 percent of US beef and far less than 1 percent of Western states' jobs and income. Critics add that much of the land is controlled by large corporations (including oil and insurance companies) and wealthy absentee permit holders.
Supporters of the cattle industry respond that most ranching operations in the West are owned by families earning less than $30,000 a year doing very hard work that is economically risky as well as physically dangerous. In addition, they say businesses related to ranching add up to a $9 billion economic sector that provides a crucial tax base for rural communities.
And while there may be more cows in Florida than there are in Nevada, industry spokesmen point out that some 20 percent of all calves going to feed lots outside the region come from Western ranches.
''Basically, we just want an opportunity to make a satisfactory living for ourselves and our family and the opportunity to continue producing and improving the quality and quantity of livestock products,'' Wyoming sheep rancher Truman Julian told a congressional committee considering changes to federal grazing policy this summer.
''Ranchers proudly consider themselves environmentalists, as we must care for the environment day in and day out if we are to return to it for our livelihoods,'' said Mr. Julian, whose family has been ranching for four generations.
Keeping range in shape
Whether Western rangelands are improving is a matter of perception. Industry supporters point to a 1990 assessment by the Bureau of Land Management, which declared that ''public rangelands are in a better condition than at any time in this century.''
This still means that about half the Western range is officially classified as ''fair'' or ''poor'' - proof, critics say, that more than 100 years of grazing have damaged wide areas of fragile land.
Economist Robert Nelson, a former Interior Department official now affiliated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the University of Maryland, calculates that taxpayers pay about $500 million a year to support the federal grazing program through such efforts as emergency feed supplies and controlling unwanted vegetation and predators.
One way to ease the environmental impact of ranching, say Hess and other fiscal conservatives, is to reduce federal subsidies and let the market decide among several uses for the land - including leaving it alone to repair itself.
''Our personal philosophies and affiliations cover the political spectrum,'' says the Natural Resources Defense Council's Ms. Wald, of the unorthodox mix of players urging reform. ''But we are united in calling upon Congress to end rancher welfare and adopt a policy of environmental and economic responsibility.''