Few issues on the Western range are more emotionally charged than the question of where ranchers' livestock should or shouldn't be able to roam.
For at least a century, cattle and sheep have reigned supreme on more than 350 million acres of public property - sometimes to the detriment of rivers, native plants, and predators like wolves, which were shot or driven out of grazing areas.
Since the mid-1990s, however, the Clinton administration has enacted a package of sweeping rangeland reforms, supported by a growing public desire to protect the landscape and recover wild species.
In the next few weeks, the US Supreme Court will rule on whether the administration indeed has the authority to prohibit cattle- and sheep-grazing in national forests and grasslands. The case marks a test of how much power the administration has - in the face of opposition from Western congressional delegations - to regulate where livestock can and cannot go.
It isn't so much the cows themselves that are on trial in Washington. Yet the decision will have immediate consequences for the mooing icons of the frontier and perhaps, too, for the rural cowboy culture that has grown up around them.
The administration's attempts to raise grazing fees, reduce cattle herds to help endangered species, move livestock out of sensitive river corridors, and, in some places, eliminate cattle-grazing altogether have been branded cultural heresy.
Last month, lawyers for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Public Lands Council went before the justices to argue that the Clinton administration acted improperly by enacting its reforms.
Julie Jo Quick, spokeswoman for the 230,000-member association, says the impacts of cattle and sheep have been exaggerated, and public lands are in better condition now than they were a quarter-century ago. "Ranchers," she says, "are the ultimate environmentalists."
Go away, little dogie?
Still, activists working against grazing rights are taking more extreme positions.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association, for example, has suggested that Congress make a one-time appropriation of $1 billion to buy most of the public-lands livestock permits that ranchers have in the West. Also, University of Wyoming law professor Debra Donahue, who holds a master's degree in wildlife biology, wrote a controversial book that called for removing livestock from nearly all public lands to conserve biodiversity.
Immediately, Wyoming Senate president Jim Twiford proposed a bill that would dismantle the university law school. He argued that Ms. Donahue had no business teaching at a land-grant institution and criticizing an industry that has been central to the university's mission.
Booting cattle and sheep off public lands is a sensitive issue - considered as radical as proposals to breach Glen Canyon Dam and drain Lake Powell. Even mainstream environmentalists are wary of the all-or-nothing approach.
The concern is that if ranchers are forced out of national forests and open public rangelands, their ranches will no longer be economically viable, forcing them to sell to developers. That would exacerbate sprawl, and lead to the loss of crucial wildlife habitat.
According to the US Agriculture Department, there are 88,785 beef farms or ranches in the West, but the number is declining monthly. Analysts say 70 percent of the ranches will change ownership in the next five to 10 years. Some cattlemen say they are being forced off public lands.
"The timber era, the cattle era, the mainstream big-dam era, the wise-use era are ending," writes Ed Marston in the latest issue of High Country News. "An immense landscape is going from ... one way of life to another in an astoundingly short time."
At best, it leaves the future of the West - and its ranchlands - uncertain. Bruce Runnels of the Nature Conservancy says the most important factor in maintaining healthy landscapes is keeping them "intact," and sometimes, that means helping conservation-minded ranchers.
"In the West, where ranchers control more land than any other group of landowners, intact landscapes are best represented in ranch lands," says Mr. Runnels, who has caught flak from anticow environmentalists. "Unless we save them now, they'll be gone forever."
Less tolerance for grazing
Still, America's increasingly urbanized society has less and less tolerance for the damage caused by livestock and for the public subsidies that ranchers get, says antigrazing activist George Wuerthner.
Some 28 percent of the plants and animals on the endangered species list owe their declines in part to livestock, he says. The link is particularly poignant in the Southwest, where it might take 100 acres or more, plus diverting streams, to feed a single cow going to market.
Ranchers claim that federal agencies are riding roughshod over their livelihoods and they say the Clinton administration has been disingenuous with trying to achieve a resolution.
Finding a middle ground is key.
"We're getting better and better at finding a balance. Are we there yet? Absolutely not," says Chris Wood, a senior adviser to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. "The issue is incredibly complex given the cultural connection and the importance of the ranching community."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society