Land Management and Regional Politics
Knickerbocker, Brad, The Christian Science Monitor
TAKE the 11 contiguous states west of the 100th meridian, discount the two most populous (California and Washington, which are largely urban), and you get a vast expanse of real estate with less than 7 percent of the country's population rattling around between mountains and sagebrush. Now send those states' senators out East to Washington, D.C., and - thanks to the United States Constitution - you see their political clout jump nearly threefold relative to head count back home.
Here you have one of the most interesting regional political dynamics in US politics as well as a key reason for the accelerating debate over federal land management.
The Clinton administration bumped up against this dynamic last week when a majority of the Senate - led by a bloc of Westerners - voted for a one-year moratorium on raising fees to graze cattle on public lands. "A major victory for small ranchers and townspeople who live in America's West," Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico called it.
The administration wants to raise those fees 130 percent over the next two years (not that onerous a figure when one notes that the $1.86 currently paid per cow and calf each month accounts for only about 5 percent of the cost of ranching).
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt vows to fight the moratorium, which was attached to his department's 1994 budget, in the House - where, importantly, rural lawmakers have relatively less clout.
This tussle over grazing fees is part of the administration's broader plan to take better care of federal lands environmentally impacted by other resource industries as well, including logging and mining. The fee in fact is a relatively minor issue - a "straw man to draw attention from management issues," according to an Interior Department memo leaked to Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho.
But it doesn't take a cynic to note that the fee is a straw man used by the cattle industry as well. Even Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona says ranchers could handle a doubling of the fee over four years.
The real concern here is the increasing political push to limit grazing on public lands for justifiable environmental reasons like erosion and water quality. …