Two House members from Utah, a Garfield County commissioner and the Bush administration blasted Tuesday the proposed quadrupling of grazing fees on public land, saying it would force most Western ranchers out of business.
In fact, they charged the proposed increase is simply an attempt by environmentalists to remove cattle and sheep from public lands because they think the land is damaged by overgrazing."We have all heard the slogans such as `Cattle Free by '93' and `No Moo by '92,' " Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston told the House Interior Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. "It is not too difficult to see how that narrow agenda could be advanced the bills that are under consideration."
Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., is proposing raising fees from the current minimum of $1.97 for grazing a cow and calf on public land for a month (called an "animal unit month") to $8.70 by 1995. He says current fees are much lower than those on private lands and do not even cover the government's cost of administering grazing.
Similar legislation passed the House last year, but stiff opposition from Western senators - including Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah - killed it in the Senate.
"Such a drastic increase in fees would put many ranchers out of business," said U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Cy Jamison. "That would cause widespread damage to many Western livestock producers and to the rural economies of Western states. Ironically, it would ultimately result in lower federal grazing revenues."
He figures the higher fees would force so many ranchers in Utah and the West out of business that BLM annual grazing revenues would fall from $18 million in 1990 to $1 million in 1995 - but the BLM costs would not be cut much because it would still have to oversee the land.
He said it would also hurt the overall condition of rangelands, noting ranchers now maintain many of the water facilities and fences. He added, "Properly managed livestock are effective tools for improving vegetation, much as mowing a yard or pruning a fruit tree can stimulate those plants to more vigorous growth."
Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, also told the committee that Synar's comparing public land grazing fees with those charged on private land is like comparing apples to oranges.
He said private fees often include many costs that ranchers on public lands must pay extra to provide themselves - including building fences and developing water supplies.
For example, representatives of the National Cattlemen's Association testified that Utah State University economist Darwin B. Nielsen figured such "non-fee" costs to rancher on public lands average $12.29 per animal unit month - actually making ranching on public land generally more expensive than that on private land.
Orton said if Congress is to compare public and private costs in grazing fees, then it would have to do so in other areas. "Wildlife viewing at one popular commercial animal safari park is $14.50 per person. Should we not charge that to watch wildlife on public lands?"
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, also called the proposed fee increases part of "a conspiracy to get people off public lands." He also said range lands are in the better shape than in 40 years, although some problems remain.
He questioned representatives of several environmental groups - including Cindy Shogan of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance - whether their true intent behind supporting fee increases was to remove cattle from public lands. They all said no. They said they simply wanted better management of the lands.
Hansen added that while supporters of the fee increase say only 8 percent of slaughter animals come from public lands, "that's not too encouraging if you happen to be in the 8 percent. . . That 8 percent go way back to when the pioneers went into those valleys."
The argument on grazing fees comes amid heightened concern in southern Utah by cattlemen that environmentalists are trying to force them off their land by threatening even to shoot their cattle - and some have already been killed.
As the Deseret News reported earlier this week, many cowboys in Garfield County are now carrying guns, have hired guards for their cattle and are offering rewards for information about anyone killing cattle.
While Hansen, Orton, Garn and Hatch have taken clear stands against increasing grazing fees, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, has taken a more fuzzy stand. He abstained on the vote about similar grazing fee increases last year, saying he wanted to prevent a conflict of interest because of grazing permits his family owns in southern Utah.