Playing Against a Stacked Deck - Public land ranchers face new political threats

By J. Zane Walley

The modest village of Cuba lies in northern New Mexico at the base of the Nacimiento Mountains and at the edge of the Navajo and Jicarilla Reservations. Cuba (named from the Spanish word for water trough, <I>cubeta</I>) is a tidy jumble of adobes built in the 1800s, prefabricated steel buildings and mobile homes. The one main street has a few mom-and-pop restaurants, motels and feed stores.

Cuba has a population of less than one thousand. However, it serves an area with a population approaching 5,000, predominately a far-flung and remote outlying ranching community. Cuba is typical of hundreds of small communities in the American West where survival in the area depends on the ranchers having access to federal lands for grazing.

Cuba and similar communities throughout the West are in trouble, serious trouble. The ranchers are under a continuous onslaught of threats to their livelihoods. These include drought, wolf re-introduction, a severely depressed market for cattle created by competition from foreign countries, shifting policies in public lands agencies (U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, state land and resources departments and the like), and the ongoing war waged against them by ecocatastrophistic environmentalists who regard ranchers with an attitude approaching racism.

Under the weight of these pressures, bankruptcy by bankruptcy the ranches are vanishing.

The average federal land rancher is not a wealthy livestock magnate. Although his ranch may be registered as a family corporation, he may be barely making a living. Those who pursue ranching as a livelihood own a moderately small area of land with water. These ranchers lease reasonably large tracts of nearby government owned lands, perhaps 20,000 acres or more. In return for the right to use public lands, the ranchers pay a fee for the animals they graze, and provide and maintain improvements, such as watering troughs and fences. In exchange, government agencies receive funding, improvements to the land and hands-on management of the land by ranchers.

There was quiet anticipation that the Bush administration would come to the rescue of the outback cattlemen. Indeed, Bureau of Land Management director Kathleen Clarke announced proposed changes to regulations for that agency. Her proposals would allow ranchers to hold property interests in the fences, stock ponds and equipment they put on BLM land. Ms. Clarkeís suggestions would introduce an element of common sense into the regulation of grazing on BLM property, and if implemented would make life easier for the rancher and healthier for the land.

Ranchers were vastly encouraged by her plans. But then, certain grim threats began to materialize.

Gale Norton, secretary of the Department of Interior, is the consummate political fence-straddling bureaucrat. In April 2002, she spoke before the Sand County Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that advocates placing control of private property into the hands of government agencies and land trusts such as The Nature Conservancy. Her statement to the foundation was standard political doublespeak. Commenting on the plight of federal land ranchers Ms. Norton said: "These people simply wanted to pursue their dreams and livelihoods, but saw a distant and heavy-handed federal bureaucracy standing in the way. I retained my own desire to protect the environment, yet sympathized with their plight."

A few months after Ms. Nortonís speech, low-key indications concerning Interiorís plan to remove control of private lands from the owner began surfacing.

A highly placed source in the BLM has reported that during a mid-February closed meeting of federal land mangers and the Interior hierarchy, it was revealed that those plans were moving quietly forward. The source said many attendees were surprised when Interior officials stated that they were working on a plan that gave the BLM a vested and controlling interest in the private lands held by the individual rancher. Moreover, to receive the benefits proposed by Kathleen Clarke, including free grazing rights, ranchers would have to surrender the property development rights on their <I>private</I> land, thus opening the door for federal agencies to regulate not only the federal land, but also the ranchersí personal property.

Studies conducted by Dr. Floy Lilly at the University of Texas indicate that this surrender of the property development rights (through a device called a conservation easement) would lower the value of the property by as much as 87 percent and could prohibit normal ranching activities on the land.

The surreptitious move by the Interior Department drew sharp comments from western leaders. Former Arizona state representative Gail Griffin exclaimed, "We cannot allow this to happen. It strips our property rights away; itís stealing the value of the ranchersí property."

Bob Jones, president of the Paragon Foundation, a property-rights organization based in Alamogordo, N.M., said, "We do not believe that this is something federal land ranchers should get into. It is simply the government taking advantage of people on hard times."

Jeff Isenberg, public land director for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (the trade association for America's one million cattle farmers and ranchers) agreed with Mr. Jones. "Some public land ranchers may take this incentive because they are down, and people that are down and hurting financially do the darndest things," he told this reporter in a telephone interview. "I believe that we should determine what the benefit to the industry as a whole is. A proposal like this creates more questions than answers."

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, raised some legal questions. "It seems to be against the law," she said. "It would take vast regulatory changes and a lot of consideration. It would entail mixing private property with a federal lease."

Lurking in the background are two pieces of legislation in Congress that if passed would strengthen enormously Interior's plans to convert private lands to government ownership.

Of particular concern are two sections in the recently introduced SB 256 -- the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment Act of 2003, or CARE, by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). These offer "incentives" to individuals and businesses to donate various properties to non-profit organizations.

Sections 106 and 107 of provide a 25 percent tax break on capital gains for landowners that agree to sell their land to land trusts or government agencies, thereby providing agencies and outfits like the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy a nearly irresistible advantage over private buyers. Though it is technically a tax break for the seller of the land, the only party that would really benefit is the buyer, if that party is a land trust or government land agency. If passed, SB 256 will result in increasingly more land taken off the tax rolls -- thus damaging the tax base of rural communities in regions of the country dominated by public land ownership and leaving rural communities like Cuba with vastly diminished financial resources.

Another threat -- the National Forest Ecosystem Protection Act (H.R. 652), by Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), currently in two House committees, Agriculture and Resources -- grants the secretary of the Department of Agriculture (which includes the U.S. Forest Service) land acquisition authority.

Specifically, H.R. 652 states: "The Secretary shall strive to acquire [from "willing sellers"] all private lands, all mineral rights not owned by the United States, and all other interests in lands not owned by the United States Ö located within any wilderness area named in this Act and within the primitive areas delineated pursuant to this Act." The bill further calls for a "the elimination of commercial grazing on all allotments Ö in wilderness or primitive areas," with a "Permanent phaseout of grazing" to be completed within 14 years.

Perhaps the Beltway bureaucrats and the misinformed environmental community forget that it is the rancher who keeps an eye on the land and wildlife conditions that would otherwise be neglected by understaffed state and federal agencies. They ignore the fact that it is the rancher who feeds and waters much of the wildlife that the public enjoys. Perhaps they do not realize that their dictates destroy lives, an irreplaceable culture and reduce entire communities to ghost towns.

Freelance journalist Perri Knize, in a 1999 article in the <I>Atlantic Monthly</I>, "Winning the War for the West," put it eloquently when he stated: "What we lose with the cowboy is far more than some antiquated and romantic notion of the West. When we lose the family ranch, we lose much that we need as human beings, and much of what brought migrants like me to the inland West in the first place: a daily, personal relationship with nature; a social contract that works; a sense of connection with others; a sense of fully inhabiting a place for the long haul. Ranching communities are ruled by ethics that knit neighbors tightly and securely together -- the antithesis of the alienated urban culture in which 75 percent of Americans now live."

Cuba and countless other western rural villages are being methodically destroyed by skewed politics and enormously funded special interest groups. These priceless treasures of Americana can be saved by those politicians who value reality over seeming political correctness and an informed public that says "No" to a bought-and-paid-for bureaucracy that yields to the immense lobbying funds and pressures of the super-wealthy environmental lobby.

This article made possible by a grant from The Paragon Foundation, Alamogorodo, NM: 1-877-847-3443


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