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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Home, Home on the Range

Air Date: Week of

Deborah Begel reports from Santa Fe, New Mexico on the search for common ground between ranchers and environmentalists in the battle over new federal regulations.


CURWOOD: If there is one area where the environment is causing the Clinton Administration concerns during this election season, it's been their efforts to reform the use of Federal range lands. Twice, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has been reigned in from his efforts to hike fees and restrict ranchers using public lands. Once by the President under pressure from a posse of western Democratic legislators, and once by Congress itself. Now, Secretary Babbitt is back for a third try, but as Deborah Begel reports from Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Interior boss is seeking common ground and taking care not to offend during the election season.

(A bustling crowd: "Continue the discussion.")

BEGEL: When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt came to grazing reform hearings in New Mexico recently, he caught an earful. Ranchers and environmentalists were split right down the middle.

SPEAKER: What I see on our public lands is one use, which is grazing, occurring to the detriment of all other uses.

SPEAKER: New Mexico has more Federal permitees than any other state in the west. Over 3,500. This instantly dumps fifteen hundred and fifty people on unemployment.

SPEAKER: Our native wildlife populations have been severely impacted by the competitive grazing of livestock as well as other factors. Bison are down from historical highs of 7 to 12 million to about 90,000 today. Bighorn sheep from 2 to 3 million...

SPEAKER: When environmentalists do more than preach, litigate, and politic globally, and begin to think locally, partnerships will become possible. Mr. Secretary, you can facilitate in the creating of a shared vision to conserve and increase the sustainability of public lands and adjacent rural communities, or you can go down in history as the Secretary of the Interior who triggered the range wars which ended the 20th century. [Applause]

BEGEL: Secretary Babbitt is no stranger to controversy. When he tried to get grazing reform through Congress, western Senators invoked a successful filibuster. Now he's trying again to make similar changes administratively. His plan would be the first major overhaul of public lands management in 60 years. The proposal includes grazing fee hikes, putting environmentalists and other citizens on advisory boards, the transfer of water rights from permittees to the government, and quick revoking of permits to ranchers who break the rules. Ranchers at the hearing blasted the proposal. Environmentalists said it didn't go far enough. Secretary Babbitt listened attentively, then warned those embroiled in the debate that polarization is not the path he wants to take.

BABBITT: The question is, can we work together? I hear people say we can't do that in New Mexico. Well, I got to tell you I disagree with that.

BEGEL: He says his certainty comes from his experience in several communities in the west. He points to half a dozen places, including Gunnison, Colorado, where ranchers and environmentalists are working together.

(Cows mooing)

BEGEL: Gunnison is a beautiful, lush valley tucked under craggy, rocky mountain peaks, just a few miles south of the popular ski resort, Crested Butte. In Gunnison, ranchers and environmentalists realized they shared common goals a dozen years ago. They got together and fought a water grab by Denver suburbs. They also wanted to slow second home development that threatened open spaces and picture postcard vistas.

(Sounds of highway traffic)

BEGEL: Fifth-generation rancher Ken Spann stands on the side of a road above the quaint mountain village of Crested Butte. He points at a narrow, high-mountain valley with a single ski lift marking the presence of humans. He says a rancher friend owns the land at the base of the lift and uses the adjoining public lands to graze his cattle in summer.

SPANN: There' s a whole valley over there that there aren't any houses on. There aren't any hotels on. There isn't any pavement. Primarily because it's a working cattle ranch. And if that national forest grazing system changes to the point where he can't economically operate that ranch, what's at the base of that lift will change, too.

BEGEL: Spann's been working with local environmentalists who share his belief that the fate of public and private lands here are intertwined. That if ranchers are forced off public lands by tighter regulations, they may be forced out of business altogether.

LOHR: Conversion of ranch parcel after ranch parcel to subdivisions is anathema.

BEGEL: Susan Lohr is one of these environmentalists. She's director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Labs, a private research center.

LOHR: To me, that continuation of viability, even the increase of agriculture in this long, narrow, high elevation valley, is essential to a healthy environment here.

BEGEL: Lohr and Spann have spent many hours sitting around a kitchen table, talking with the other ranchers and environmentalists in the Gunnison Working Group about grazing and public lands issues.

LOHR: We kind of informally watch each other's reactions. And if something comes up that's absolutely impossible to agree on, we agree to set it aside. And if we try to bull our way through the really tough ones, we figure that we would waste so much time and wouldn't make the progress that we need to make on the others.

SPANN: The larger point is that we're able to make real sustained progress if we focus on areas where there is consensus or a real genuine opportunity to reach consensus. And, as you move forward, the thing that has become very obvious is that where we do agree, it provides the foundation for a much broader community consensus that ultimately has enormous political force locally.

BEGEL: The success of their dialogue is not just that they're talking to each other. Both sides say the dialogue has led to better management of public lands here. In fact, Secretary Babbitt has been so impressed by the results of this partnership that he has asked the Gunnison group to design a model grazing school for ranchers, environmentalists, and other people in the west who are interested in public lands.

(Bustling at the public hearing: "And we're going to get things done and work together, face to face.")

BEGEL: The deadline for public comment on the grazing plan was in early September. A large percentage came from New Mexico, perhaps more than any other state in the west. That suggests that the chances of bringing the kind of dialogue in Gunnison to New Mexico may be slim at best. But Secretary Babbitt continues to insist he'll forge some kind of consensus out of these cantankerous advocates on both sides.

BABBITT: To those in New Mexico who say we can't work together, I say simply, yes you can. And I'm going to be out here, relentlessly again and again and again, mixing it up, walking the landscape, trying to find reasonable people on both sides, coaxing you, pushing, shoving. Because I think this is the future of where it's got to go in the West. And I'll tell you, I've made that wager. And I'm not backing away from it until I'm either proven absolutely wrong or until you run me off the landscape.

BEGEL: If Babbitt is run off the landscape, it could be with a herd of western Democrats who support his reforms. So it's likely he won't announce his final grazing regulations until after the November elections. For Living on Earth, this is Deborah Begel.



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