Troubled Home on the Range

Ranchers face a battle against environmentalists for prime grazing land.

In a desert city, changes to the land are usually brutish and quick--the bulldozer's snarl, the seething dust, and by nightfall, nature's untidy millennium is scraped clean.

But in the country, change is different. In the rural places where there's much time to think and to brood, transformation is slow, unclenching and quite often despised.

Still, change does come. And consequently, some folks aren't too happy about it. Folks like Cotton Basinger. Today, he rises from tending a horse hoof and gazes out over his rumpled and rugged country, hard against the Whetstone Mountains south of Tucson.

Basinger has run cattle on this patch of earth for 50 years. And like others in a region of barbed wire, windmills and pickup trucks, he's angry that environmentalists were recently able to outbid another local rancher to lease 162 acres of prime, state-owned grazing land just down the hill.

On May 5, New Mexico-based Forest Guardians offered a winning bid for the picturesque riverside habitat, which the group plans to restore. It marks the first time in Arizona that non-ranchers have been allowed to compete for coveted state grazing leases. But to Cotton Basinger, it's all part of a long-term agenda.

"They're just going to make it too expensive to ranch anymore," he says. "And that's exactly what the environmentalists want."

He just may be right. Western public-lands ranchers have long been targeted by environmental groups, who point out that cattle usually beat the life out of those public lands. They obliterate stream banks. They trample native vegetation.

Ranching critics argue this shouldn't happen on real estate belonging to all Americans. Now, using increasingly successful, market-based strategies, these enviros are going head-to-head with ranchers on state and federal lands.

Like Forest Guardians, they've gone to court to win bidding rights on state trust lands. And in Congress, Rep. Raul Grijalva is co-sponsoring legislation to create a voluntary buyout program, aimed at ranchers who decide to relinquish their grazing permits on federal lands.

Facing a Republican-dominated Congress--one filled with anti-environmentalist conservatives from Western states--Grijalva admits the timing isn't great. But he says the buyout program is needed "as the issue of grazing on public lands is becoming more and more of an either-or proposition."

He says his measure offers a financial boost to ranchers who want to maintain their rural lifestyle. "In a voluntary buy-out, they could preserve that identity. And at the same time, there's a conservation benefit to all of us."

It's part of a political shift, as Americans "begin to realize that federal agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have failed" to protect public lands, says Jon Marvel, director of the Western Watersheds Project. Based in Idaho, the group is part of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, a coalition that lobbies against public lands ranching, and helped shape the buyout proposal. Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity is also a coalition member.

Marvel says that breaking the ranchers' stranglehold on public lands is an uphill battle.

"I think it's very clear that what we have across the West is a political problem, where the 'lords of yesterday' have been in charge a long time, are accustomed to being in charge, have never seen a free market that they like, and would prefer to prevent market forces from affecting their continued control over most of the land in the West--public, state and private."

Rancher's trade groups hold positions closer to Cotton Basinger's. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association isn't pressuring its 30,000 members to oppose the buyout proposal. "(But) we don't support a federal policy that would encourage the dismantling of the infrastructure needed for ranching out West," says Jeff Eisenberg, the group's director of federal lands. "We have no position on what individuals feel they may need to do for their own well-being. But we just don't think there should be federal incentives to encourage the elimination of grazing allotments."

For a rancher with 300 head of cattle, the program would offer about $260,000 to retire grazing permits on Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal property. If all of the 27,000 ranchers on federal lands accepted the buy-out, it could cost the government up to $1.5 billion. But environmentalists counter that subsidizing ranching through below-market grazing fees and other associated costs already carries a yearly price tag of roughly $460 million.

The buyout proposal would likely attract many ranchers, weary of an ongoing drought and fluctuating market prices. At the same time, this market-based approach is driving the industry's conservative allies into a corner, says Donald Leal of the Political Economy Research Center, a Montana group that advocates economic approaches to environmental protection. Conservatives wholly support free markets, "unless it involves ranching," he says. "Then they do a turnaround and start arguing for government intervention."

The debate over state trust lands is a bit different. Granted in territorial times by the federal government to help fund schools, trust lands are required to generate maximum revenues--a requirement that environmentalists argue should award leases to the highest bidder. Two years ago, the Arizona Supreme Court agreed, and in May, the State Land Department formally awarded the Elgin-area parcel to Forest Guardians.

Still, the group's success may not be duplicated in other Western states. For example, Oregon and California have already sold off most of their trust lands. With only 640,000 acres left, Oregon courts have rejected several legal challenges by the Oregon Natural Desert Association to open these remaining parcels to environmental groups.

As they've done in New Mexico, Forest Guardians targeted their limited funds on Arizona's most attractive trust lands, "in part to inform the public about backward state policies" that favor ranching, says John Horning, the group's director. "We're focused on getting the biggest biological gain for our buck, and in this case, it involves a nice perennial stream and well-forested area."

But to Jake Flake, Republican speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, groups such as Forest Guardians simply "cherry-pick the best parts of the land, and outbid the ranchers." He says that environmentalists and the public often "don't recognize the importance of cattle ranchers as stewards of the land. When cattle are removed, the land starts deteriorating."

That's the way the Arizona Land Department apparently saw it under former Gov. Jane Hull, who tended to march in lock-step with ranchers. (The biggest change that's come to Arizona land-use policies "is the election of Janet Napolitano as governor," says Jon Marvel.)

And that's certainly the way rancher Cotton Basinger sees it today. Turning back to his horse, sighing with disgust, he says a unique way of life is under assault.

"(The environmentalists) wanted that land and they got it," he says bitterly. "Now they're going to try to take all of it. And once they get it, that's the end of ranching, period."

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