Western ranchers, responding to two bills to charge higher federal grazing fees, say the legislation was a disguised attempt to destroy their businesses.

"They (the sponsors) want to raise fees so high that no animals could be grazed profitably on the federal range," Wayne Hage, speaking on behalf of the National Inholders Association and the Multiple-Use Land Alliance, said in comments prepared for a House Interior subcommittee hearing last week.Rep. Mike Synar, sponsor of one of the bills, was just as outspoken in its defense. His bill would raise the fee from its current $1.97 per head a month to $8.70 a month in fiscal 1994.

"Each time Congress considers charging fair market value for the privilege of grazing on public lands, the same old arguments are raised to prevent it. I think it is time for a change," Synar, D-Okla., said. "This year, the taxpayers will lose 80 cents on every dollar spent to administer the federal grazing program."

The Agriculture and Interior departments administer 250 million acres of federal rangeland in the West. About 31,000 ranchers have grazing permits.

Congress considered the idea of higher fees last year but dropped it because of Senate opposition.

At a news conference, Hage said he hoped for a similar result this year, if the House again votes in favor of higher fees.

"There are, perhaps, clearer minds in the Senate," Hage said. "I hope we will prevail again."

Livestock and farmer organizations say critics do not give adequate weight to the costs they bear in maintaining federal lands for grazing. The cost of renting private land appears higher, they say, because the landowner is responsible for land improvements.

Hage said Synar and Rep. George Darden, D-S.C., "are really engaging in a regional economic war against the West."

"They speak the language of the preservationists. . . . But their proposals are meant to benefit the livestock industry in their own areas by decreasing the nationwide supply of grazing (land)."

Synar said his bill would charge permit holders a rate equal to the cost of obtaining the same amount of forage commercially.

"The simple truth is: A few federal grazing permit holders are feeding off the federal treasury," Synar said, arguing that higher fees would gave the government money and reduce damage caused by over-grazing.

The Agriculture Department said it opposed the Darden and Synar bills on grounds both failed to consider non-fee costs of using private or public land. It said the Synar bill "would cause significant non-use of National Forest forage."