Annapolis Institute Overview


Grazing fees are federal smokescreen

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, October 13, 1993

The initiative to raise grazing fees on federal lands may be decided in Congress this week. Unfortunately, grazing fees are simply a smokescreen for three hidden agendas ruthlessly pursued by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt:

First, Babbitt would eliminate marginal ranchers in favor of West coast developers. If marginal ranchers can be denied access to public lands, they will be forced to sell their private land at pennies on the dollar. Result: Wealthy California developers will come in and build 40 acre ranchettes, condos and hotels — shake-and-bake “Babbittowns” where urban cowboys can have a “genuine” Western experience, like in the movie City Slickers.

If it’s “Cattle Free in ’93” it will be “Condos Galore in 2004.” Babbitt’s California friends who pour lots of money into Democratic campaign coffers will make out like bandits.

Second, Babbitt aims to hijack Western water law. It is amazing that there is almost no media attention to the core issue in Babbitt’s so-called “grazing” reform: A Federal taking of private water rights and the groundwork to pre-empt Western state water law. The Babbitt grazing fee plan is a shakedown, requiring ranchers to relinquish ownership of water rights in order to get grazing permits. There is a lot of gibberish about how this will be staged, but there is also a bottom line: The federal government will gain significant upstream water rights it does not now have. If we are going to rewrite Western water law, we should not do it through the back door.

Third, Babbitt aims to dilute local control by invoking the “communities of interest” doctrine. Almost unnoticed through all this is the rationale for the proposal to abolish “grazing advisory boards” and replace them with “resource advisory councils” that include environmentalists, academic fisheries experts, wildlife managers and the like. This is all part of a larger national movement to elevate the legal concept of “communities of interest” to a status like the concept of “sustainability”.

The “communities of interest” doctrine, a favorite of Lani Guinier and other legal beagles, justifies outrageous assaults on democratic principles in order to achieve “correct” political results. If the doctrine were invoked to justify letting suburbanites in New Jersey vote in elections in Manhattan, proponents would properly be subject to charges of racism. But these concepts are now being used to justify abolishing or diluting local control over local issues in rural areas.

This is an ominous development, especially when you consider that some groups are pushing to include the doctrine of “communities of interest” in the reauthorization of Endangered Species and other environmental legislation. And the doctrine violates the whole notion of what the Europeans call “subsidiarity” — pushing decisions to the lowest possible unit of government.

So, while the debate swirls around the smokescreen — such as ranchers getting a “free ride” v. the destruction of a “way of life” — the real issues are hard core economic and political: Who gets what, when and how. Babbitt proposals are thinly (but, so far effectively) disguised initiatives to give the West over to new owners. Let’s hope Western Senators–like Democrats Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Max Baucus and Republicans Hank Brown and Pete Domenici–are successful in their demands for a debate that is up front and out in the open.

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