Utah livestock producers are angry about a proposal before Congress to increase grazing fees on public land by nearly 500 percent.

An amendment to the Interior Department appropriations bill, which is due to be voted on Monday, would increase grazing fees over a four-year period from the present rate of $1.81 per animal unit month to $8.70.An animal unit month is the amount of land it takes to feed an animal for a month. The poorer the land, the more acres needed.

The House Rules Committee last week agreed to allow consideration of the amendment by Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla. The amendment to HR5769 would abolish the current formula that sets grazing fees on federal lands and would establish a new formula that would hike fees to $4.35 next year, $5.80 in 1992, $7.25 in 1993 and $8.70 in 1994.

Delta farmer Kenneth R. Ashby, president of the Utah Farm Bureau, said Friday the proposal would destroy rural Utah cities and towns that rely heavily on livestock production for their economies.

Ashby said the AUM fee formula has worked for decades, is a sliding rate that follows the nation's economy and to change it substantially could destroy the cattle industry in Utah and all Western states.

Critics of the current, lower fees say that the government in effect subsidizes ranchers whose livestock graze on public land. They also say that livestock damage the land.

"Agriculture is beset by onslaughts from environmentalists, animal rights activists and wilderness advocates," Ashby said.

"This is just one more slam against farmers and ranchers, just one more attempt to get livestock off publicrangelands."

He called the amendment "an attempt to get more money into federal coffers," but said the move is a poor idea, since it is bound to backfire.

Ashby said Americans have enjoyed cheap food for decades, but "kicking cattle off the public rangelands will only boost the price of meat sky high."

He said Synar is being "shortsighted. After all, there is little or no public rangeland in Oklahoma, so what does he care.

"The fact is, though, that 98 percent of all the cattle grown in the United States spend part of their lives on public rangelands in the West - especially the first year or so.

"If Western cattlemen can't use public rangelands because of the high prices the federal government demands, they will either go out of business - a very real possibility - or go to private lands. In any case, if the price of growing beef goes sky high, the consumer price of beef will also explode."

Ashby said the government will not get more money in the long run by boosting the price of an AMU since the high price will keep farmers from using public lands. "The government won't get anything.

"On much of America's Western rangelands the only resource is grass. If cattle are taken off the range, the grasslands won't be managed and wildlife will suffer immeasurably."