June 22 - June 28, 1995

Western Lawmakers Travel To Washington To Protect Their Welfare Benefits.

B y  J i m  N i n t z e l

LAST WEEK, A posse of western lawmakers from 12 states rode into Washington to corral those D.C. liberals and make a case for "rejuvenating the West."

Assembling under the banner of the Western States Coalition, the group revealed a plan called "12 Steps to Revive the West," which includes scrapping the Endangered Species Act, protecting private property rights (Read: takings legislation) and protecting mining and grazing operations from legislative reform.

Among the 12-steppers in D.C.: Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives Mark Killian, a Mesa Republican who told reporters, "We aren't going to let (Interior Secretary) Bruce Babbitt and the radical environmentalists roll over the people of our state."

But it isn't only radical environmentalists calling for the changes in federal policy. Conservatives are speaking out about what they see as a mammoth welfare program benefiting ranchers and mining and timber companies.

Karl Hess Jr. of the Cato Institute (hardly a hotbed of fuzzy liberal thinking) recently wrote an article in the June 1995 edition of Reason magazine (hardly a left-wing tract) suggesting the American West was settled not by rugged individualists, but by federal subsidy.

Hess argues government subsidies have guided Western settlement since the get-go. Army calvaries massacred the Native American tribes that wouldn't be restricted to reservations. Those calvaries built forts, around which most settlements were born. Federal agencies dammed and diverted rivers to provide water for settlers. Today, those hated feds continue to slaughter wild animals who prey on cattle, while federal dollars cover the cost of spraying pesticides on pastures to keep insects from devouring the herd's grass. Uncle Sam even supports an emergency feed relief program that costs taxpayers $100 million to $500 million a year.

"Defying the power of markets and logic, Congress and the land agencies have evolved a system of deficit logging and grazing that matches the worst excesses of centralized planning in the old Soviet Union," Hess writes. "Forests that gods themselves would find difficult and unprofitable to harvest are flagged and marked by Forest Service timber cruisers. And rangelands that have a market value of $30 per acre, and a forage value measured in cents, are treated like Manhattan real estate. Billions have been spent to turn them into Cadillac grazing fields, all for the sake of pushing the public lands' beef contribution to the nation from a paltry 3 percent to a skyrocketing 3 percent plus a small fraction. In the process, forests and rangelands with marketable values for recreation, water and wildlife have been mindlessly clearcut and overgrazed in the name of multiple-use management--the federal ruse for centralized planning."

Don't make the mistake of thinking the current GOP gang in Washington has any interest in allowing market forces to take their course in this particular private sector. While everything from education to Medicare is on the chopping block, our Republican representatives are horrified at the thought that grazing fees might be increased.

When Babbitt tried to hike the fees ranchers pay to graze their herds on public land, he was nearly lynched by western lawmakers, who forced him to backpedal on the issue. Now a new plan has emerged in the U.S. Senate calling for a token increase in grazing fees, with the added bonus of extending leases from 10 to 15 years. While the proposal has Babbitt and the environmental community howling, U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) has wholeheartedly backed the plan.

This sort of relaxation of environmental laws at both the federal and state level is all the rage these days. Throughout the west, lawmakers like Killian are insisting the federal government is too strict when it comes to protecting America's dwindling natural resources. And their message is finding a sympathetic ear in the new Congress, which has set its sights on the Endangered Species Act and similar environmental regulations. (See "Creature Comfort," opposite page).

Cloaked in the rhetoric of states' rights, the Arizona Legislature last year tried to pass everything from a bill making it a crime for state officials to comply with the Endangered Species Act to a bounty on the nearly extinct Mexican gray wolves the feds are re-introducing to eastern Arizona. The sponsor of those failed measures, state Rep. Jeff Groscost (R-Mesa), has said that next year he wants to focus on finding ways for the state to completely grab ownership of federal lands.

It's a sadly familiar mentality--give us all the federal dollars and resources, but don't ask anything of us in return. Killian and company may be talking about rejuvenating the West, but they really want to see it remain on another of those spirit-eroding welfare programs.

Illustration by Joe Forkan

 Contents  Page Back  Page Forward  QuickMap

June 22 - June 28, 1995

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth