Bidding wars escalate over ranch land

At auctions, environmental activists buy leases on public lands to keep ranchers from using the acreage for grazing.

It's one of the most long-standing feuds in the West - the face-off between environmentalists and ranchers over who, besides beefy cattle, really benefits from letting herds nibble away at public lands.

The fight over grazing seems far from resolution and, if anything, is bringing out environmentalists' crafty side. One recent tactic: outbid ranchers for the right to lease the land - and then just watch the grass grow, uneaten.

It's a strategy used of late on state-managed lands in Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, and Utah. Known as state trust lands, these parcels - which cover more acreage than Pennsylvania - are environmentalists' newest club to wield against ranchers and their hungry herds.

In the most recent development, the Arizona Supreme Court in November ruled that environmental groups have the right to bid for leases on state trust lands. The case dates from 1997, when a coalition of environmentalists and hunters were initially rebuffed in efforts to bid on leases for several parcels of state trust land designated for grazing. The would-be bidders intended to clear the land of cattle in order to repair damage that they alleged had been caused by grazing.

The highly publicized case turned on the distinguishing feature of state trust lands: the mandate that they be used to generate revenue for public schools and other beneficiaries.

In its ruling, the high court opened the door to bidding by nonranchers, implying that leasing the land to ranchers might not always meet "the best interests" of the beneficiaries.

The practical effect of the ruling may be limited: So far, parcels converted from grazing cover fewer than 100,000 acres of land across the West - a relatively small number, given that more than 30 million acres of state trust land are used to graze livestock.

But the victorious environmentalists nonetheless see the ruling as an important achievement. "The Supreme Court decision turns a paradigm on its head," says John Horning, conservation director of an environmental group that was a party to the Arizona lawsuit. "It tells the old guard that the Western landscape is not exclusively valuable when it can produce commodities - that these lands are also valuable for the noncommodity values they can produce."

It is also clear that the environmentalists' tactic is as much about publicity as it is about the particular parcels up for lease. The requirement that state trust lands be managed to generate revenues for beneficiaries provides a showcase for their argument that ranching on all public lands - including those administered by the federal government - does not make economic sense.

State lands "draw attention to the subsidized nature of all public lands, whether state or federal," says Jon Marvel, the head of an environmental group that now holds former grazing leases on state lands in Utah and Idaho. "They underline that a market rate is not being paid, that ranchers do not compete for what they receive."

Several environmental groups from across the West - including Mr. Horning's and Mr. Marvel's - are launching a national campaign to end all ranching on public lands.

They argue that such grazing is a money-losing enterprise for taxpayers, and that the US government should offer ranchers a voluntary buyout of grazing rights on all federal land.

Ranchers, for their part, play down the impact of the Arizona ruling - and continue to argue that driving ranchers out of business will harm rural communities.

Doc Lane, spokesman for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, says that ranchers offer the state long-term stability - and he questions whether that outweighs the short-term value of the higher bids submitted by the hunters and environmentalists.

"The only thing the [court] decision will do," says Mr. Lane, "is force the state land department to be a lot more specific about what is good for the trust and what isn't."

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