Oregon's Open-Range Ranching Spurs Battle Over Bovine Control

Debate over cattle industry control raises dilemma of protecting livelihood or land

Buckhorn Springs Road meanders up a gently climbing valley in the mountains of southern Oregon. There's a mixture of private and federal land here, enjoyed these days by deer hunters savoring the stillness and warmth of Indian summer.

Wheeling around a curve, a driver comes upon a dozen cattle - cows and calves - relaxing outside the fenced pasture and just a few yards from Emigrant Creek. Cows aren't the brightest animals in the world, but they do know what they like: grass and willow shoots and other tender greenery - and the closer to water the better.

Such scenes are common around the rural West, where open-range ranching is as much a part of the landscape as highway signs with bullet holes.

In at least one community, it's not just deer and elk hunters doing the shooting. An anti-grazing activist was arrested last week for killing 11 of his neighbor's cattle.

The activist - a rural physician from John Day, Oregon - claims the cattle repeatedly had trespassed on his 900 acres of stream-front property, where he's been building a house and repairing the damage done by cows over many decades.

The rancher doesn't deny that his cattle wandered off the ranch. But he points out that the law in Grant County (most of which is national forest) says cattle can go anywhere except inside city limits.

Open-range ranching - a symbol of Old West ways - has new political substance these days as ranchers and environmentalists wrangle over controls on the cattle industry.

Critics say federal grazing subsidies amount to "cowboy socialism," as Senators Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire and Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas put it in a Washington Times op-ed piece this summer.

Spurred on by Western lawmakers, the Republican-led Congress has been trying to ease regulations for ranchers - especially the small family operations hard-hit by the lowest prices for beef-on-the-hoof in years.

Meanwhile, US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has been pushing "rangeland reform" measures. This means federal land managers working with ranchers, conservationists, and local officials to improve conditions on the 270 million acres of federal land available to be leased for cattle grazing across the West. There have been a few success stories.

Here in Oregon voters next week will consider a ballot measure that could have widespread impact. The "Clean Stream Initiative" would ban livestock within up to 100 feet of streams that don't meet state water-quality standards.

As in the rest of the wide open spaces, that means thousands of miles of riparian areas and the possibility that ranchers will have to spend thousands of dollars per mile on fences so that nature can restore streams.

Supporters point out that, according to federal land managers, most public grazing land is in less than good condition. And they say cattle polluting streams - depositing waste, stirring up silt, and eating or trampling down the vegetation that helps keep the water cool in summer - is a prime reason why salmon and other fish are in trouble.

Ranchers and their allies say the measure (and other efforts to rein in ranching around the West) would drive small ranchers out of business. "Don't Fence Oregon," declare hand-stenciled signs along rural roads here.

Such episodes as the recent execution of hooved trespassers in Grant County raise the perennial issue of old-timers versus new-comers. But some here say that kind of debate is pointless.

Writing in the Ashland Daily Tidings recently, John Enders (whose ancestors came out on a wagon train), points out that ranchers and farmers pushed out native Americans. And in any case, he wrote, "In southern Oregon, about the only real natives are the banana slugs."

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