Rangeland Reforms Spawn Babbittowns

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s Aug. 9 announcement of his sweeping “reform” of grazing on public lands is pretty familiar stuff: a 130% tax increase to ranchers in the form of increased grazing fees; a federal takeover of many Western water rights; and establishment of new government bureaucracy to manage public lands, descriptions of which sound a lot like the various committees the Soviets “empowered” to try to get Soviet agriculture humming.

Babbitt’s kind of “reform” has become standard fare for the Clinton administration — more taxes, more power to the federal government, and more federal bureaucracy.

The Babbitt reforms will have far-reaching consequences. The 130% increase in grazing fees will drive many ranchers off public land, forcing some to sell their remaining private land. Guess who will buy it: Developers from Arizona and California. The result: Condomania will rule the rangelands — as condos, hotels and subdivisions of 40 acre ranchettes begin to dot the landscape.

Just as William Jaird Levitt built sprawling Levittowns after WW II, the year 2000 will find sprawling Babbittowns in the Old West — cow-free watering holes for weekend cowboys and coastal yuppies looking for the shake-and-bake “wilderness” experience.

It’s instructive to compare the approach of environmentalists in the nation’s coastal areas with those in the rangelands. In coastal areas — from Valdez to Puget Sound, along the Maine coast and around the Chesapeake Bay, for example — most environmental leaders, properly in my view, are trying to restrain condomania by preserving fish markets, boat yards, sail lofts, and other traditional occupations of marine environments.

By contrast, rangeland environmentalists are trying to wipe out the traditional occupations of ranching, mining and timbering. These traditional jobs, they say, can be replaced by jobs in the tourism industry.

But, just as many are drawn to the sea by the culture of the sailor or the fisherman, many tourists come to the West as much for Western culture — cattle drives, Indian jewelry, hunting, fishing, old mining towns — as for the scenery. To those who live on the coast, people are part of the ecology. Example: You save fisheries, in part, because people make a living catching fish so other people can eat them.

In the West, people and communities, unfortunately, are not part of Secretary Babbitt’s ecosystem. In his Aug. 9 announcement, he said, “We’ve found [in the range reforms] a reasonable balance between the need to sustain the health of rangeland ecosystems and the need to sustain the economic health of rural Western areas.”

There you have it. Babbitt’s views have little to do with “fair market value” or improving the long-term health of the rangelands.

Babbitt’s reforms are about accelerated gentrification of the West. They’re about Babbittowns.

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