While Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has targeted landowners across America, perhaps no constituency has been more harmed by regulations and harassment than small family ranchers. In 1993, Babbitt, former League of Conservation Voters chairman, set out to get rid of ranchers by raising their fees so high they would not be able to pay and imposing regulations they would not be able to live with.
In October 1993, this mammoth battle resulted in a month long filibuster in the US Senate led by Sen. Pete Domenici. We organized the "Fire Babbitt/White House Phone-In." The White House and Babbitt caved in and the ranchers won, killing Babbitts fees and regulations... at least for a while.
But Babbitt didnt quit there. He held hearings in 49 locations across the country on the same day in 1994. He wanted to divide and conquer. ALRA turned the hearings into a referendum on Clinton-Babbitt land use policies and got miners, loggers, landowners, farmers, and many others to turn out in support of the ranchers. It was a public relations nightmare for Babbitt.
And yet Babbitt persisted. He dropped the fees but began imposing excessive regulations in 1995. Some of them have been held up because a Wyoming court ruled against Babbitt on part of the regulations. The case is now under appeal.
In 1995, in an attempt to head Babbitt off, ranchers began the process that would increase their fees and fix the regulations. The bill failed this last October because friendly members of Congress kept watering down the bill to satisfy liberal, eastern Republicans until the ranchers no longer could accept it. The process will begin again with the new 105th Congress.
Today, there are 27,000 grazing permittees on Federal land. The General Accounting Office says there are about 500 large operations and 26,500 smaller ones, with an average annual income of $27,000. Tough wages for a lot of hard work.
Ranchers are not only an asset to Western lands, they own part of the resources. Under state law, in most states, ranchers own the water rights. And under Federal law, they own ditches, canals and pipelines. Ranchers have invested heavily in range improvements, fences, chutes, and roads. Large amounts of wildlife in America feed on private land that must be owned by the rancher to qualify for a grazing permit. In fact, many ranchers actually subsidize the Federal taxpayer.
When urban America fully understand and appreciate the good things ranchers do for the land, there will be less pressure to force them off. Nearly every professor with expertise in grazing at every land grant college in the country says that the ONLY tool Federal land managers have to improve the range and its productivity is grazing.
Today ranchers are not only fighting Babbitt and Clintons War On The West, but low cattle prices have them on the edge of bankruptcy. They survived terrible droughts in the 80s only to see it return the last two years. And fire. In no small measure because of the NON-MANAGEMENT policy of the Clinton Administration, fires that could have and should have been put out or managed, have been left to burn. Fire has destroyed millions of acres of productive rangeland.
There are not enough ranchers to defend themselves. They need allies from private property owners, miners, loggers, and city folks who understand what it is really like in the West. Babbitt keeps talking about the New West. What hes really talking about is parts of the West we would call the New East. The Old West still exists and its traditions and values are important to America.