Bush eases land use for ranchers

New federal regulations loosen restraints on ranchers who use public lands, raising environmental concerns.

For 70 years, the federal government has regulated - or tried to, anyway - the cow herds that graze across millions of acres of public land in the West.

It's been a political struggle between preserving a rural way of life that epitomizes the nation's mythical pioneering history, supporting a slice of a regional economy that's dwindled in comparison to recreation and high-tech corridors, and responding to a growing environmental ethic that cares more about watersheds and biodiversity.

As it has done with other social and economic sectors dealing with natural resources, such as mining, oil drilling, and logging, the Bush administration is tugging that difficult balance back toward ranchers.

The just-issued federal lands regulations make it easier for cowboys to go about their business. The new rules give ranchers more time, up to five years, to reduce the size of their herds if the cattle are damaging the environment, as well as shared ownership in the water rights and some structures on federal land. The regulations also lessen the current requirements for public input in deciding grazing issues.

Government officials say they're simply "adjusting rather than conducting a major overhaul" of such regulations. Left in place will be the $1.79 per month that ranchers pay to graze a cow and its calf, a horse, or five sheep on federal land.

Kathleen Clarke, director of the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees 261 million acres of federal land in the West, says the new regulations "will produce long-term rangeland health benefits." These include more vegetation along stream banks, which will reduce soil erosion and provide more wildlife habitat, says Ms. Clarke. This is in line with claims of representatives of the beef cattle industry, who assert that cows are good for the land.

But environmentalists point to government reports over the years showing that federal lands have been degraded where cattle roam, and they say the losers are wildlife, water quality, and the condition of the fragile arid Western range that supports them.

"Almost nothing in these rules benefits the public lands or the millions of Americans who use them for purposes other than raising cattle," says Tom Lustig, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.

Other critics note that, like the logging of timber on federal lands, the federal grazing program is a money loser for Uncle Sam. That may be true, comes the rebuttal, but help for Western ranchers - even though they produce a very small fraction of US beef - sustains rural communities and a way of life that's worth preserving in the face of residential subdivisions and strip malls.

Meanwhile, some government biologists say the administration is fiddling with the science of range management - mainly biology and hydrology - in order to promote its pro-ranching agenda.

An internal report by BLM scientists warned that the proposed regulations would be bad for the environment.

"The cumulative effects ... will be significant and adverse for wildlife and biological diversity in the long-term," the scientists wrote. "The numbers of special status species [those listed or proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act] will continue to increase in the future under this alternative."

That language was removed from the scientific analysis that accompanied the new grazing regulations. As first reported in the Los Angeles Times, two scientists involved in the original analysis - both now retired - complained that their work had been "watered down."

Some observers note government efforts to help cattle ranching come at a time when those same agencies - principally the BLM - have been trying to reduce the number of another iconic animal: wild horses.

Descended from domestic stock (some from as far back as Spanish explorers), such horses actually are feral rather than truly wild, and they do compete with cattle for forage and water in the Great Basin and other parts of the West. Until recently, the BLM was allowing them to be sold for slaughter and export as horsemeat.

BLM director Kathleen Clarke notes that "grazing is a proud heritage of the West."

Ever since passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 - the first governmental effort to regulate cattle ranching on federal public lands - how to maintain that heritage without destroying the resource on which it is based has been a continuing political struggle.

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