Babbitt plan stirs fresh Western controversy with its grazing initiatives

March 18, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt sought yesterday to quell another Western uprising over his bid to reform the use of federal lands by ranchers, but instead he stirred fresh controversy with grazing initiatives that pleased neither environmentalists nor live stock producers.

Mr. Babbitt's proposal, announced yesterday, would double the fees that most ranchers pay to graze their sheep and cattle on federal land and would institute management reforms to improve the environmental health of the public ranges. But it also includes concessions sought by ranchers.

Environmentalists charged that the package falls short by failing to ban grazing and order restoration of some highly eroded lands. Some expressed concerns that the package would continue to give ranching communities the strongest voice in setting local standards for the environmental management of lands.

Ranchers, in addition to decrying fee increases, are furious that the proposal would allow environmentalists living outside their states to play a role in setting local standards.

The ranchers, joined by several senators from Western states, ,, also objected that the package would impose universal standards and guidelines for the management of national lands. While Mr. Babbitt said that he had altered his plans to make the guidelines more flexible, ranchers called them "cookie-cutter standards" that would not fit the peculiarities of individual states.

Despite the unhappiness, however, congressional observers predicted that the latest proposal would prevail. It does not require congressional approval and could go into effect, Mr. Babbitt said, by the end of this year. One leading lawmaker, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said that the new proposal was not all that he would like, but he praised it as an important step toward reform.

"This is not as sweeping as we would have preferred," said Mr. Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. "But given the necessity of balancing very polarized interests, the secretary has done a very impressive job of negotiating these reforms, and we want to work with him to implement them."

The package unveiled yesterday marks the third time the Clinton administration has sought to raise grazing fees, a step that would end what many regard as government largess that has outlived its original purpose of encouraging settlement in the Western states. Each new proposal for the fees has whittled away at the size of the increase and shrunk the scope of other reforms.

The Babbitt plan would charge most ranchers $3.96 to graze an "animal unit month" -- a measure defined as five sheep or a cow and her calf -- on most of the 272 million acres of grassland owned by the federal government. Fee increases would be phased in over three years.

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