Condo crowd set sights on western ranchers

Grazing fees are back on the front page. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wants to raise them a whopping 130% — from $1.86 per animal unit month to $4.28.

When you consider how the public questioned the recent 4.3 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax — less than five percent of the total cost of gas — it’s easy to understand why ranchers are up in arms.

There’s another difference. Those wanting cheap gasoline represent a big constituency. Those wanting access to the public lands to graze cattle or sheep or to use the public land as an easement to other private land number less than 18,000, most of whom come from small states with fewer members of Congress than the city of Los Angeles.

Those who favor Babbitt’s pre-emptive strike talk a lot about the environment and the need for more revenues. Those who oppose the takeover of federal land and water talk a lot about freedom and their birthright. But these words cloud the real issue.

The rhetoric in this debate is a lot like the rhetoric in a divorce. The estranged wife says, “I can’t stand your Mother. She is so overbearing.” The estranged husband says, “Your sister drives me up the wall. She’s so moralistic.” But their real problems — too little money, bad sex and infidelity — are very different, and they get the divorce.

The grazing fee issue is much the same. The Babbitt Bunch wants to get people who mine things, make things and grow things off the public lands, and grazing fee increases are the first assault. Their supporters run by the slogan, “Cattle Free in ’93.”

But like the estranged husband and the wife whose barbs don’t reflect their real agenda, the real agenda in rangeland reform is “Condos Galore in 2004.”

Real estate interests in Southern California, Arizona and elsewhere love what they see coming. If the Babbitt Bunch can force Western ranchers off the public Then California and Arizona developers can move in and buy the remaining private land and its water for pennies on the dollar.

Where ranchers and their families once lived, developers can build hotels, condos and 40 acre ranchettes for the affluent Baby Boomers, yuppies and assorted City Slickers — professionals with lots of cash and a yearning for the outdoors.

These developers, by coincidence, are the same people who also fill the coffers of the national Democratic Party with large sums of money.

On the other side, you have a few ranchers who raise less than two percent of the nation’s beef. However, these ranchers are more than mere percentages to the places they call home and the communities their ranches sustain. Nevertheless, the ranchers are likely to get beat. When Goliath comes after David, Goliath usually wins.

What we have here is a frontal assault on a way of life. It has very little to do with the environment or new revenues. It’s another case of pitting class against class — the government class and its monied allies against working people and small communities.

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