Senate Committee Approves New Grazing Fees
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Despite Democratic opposition, a key Senate committee approved legislation Thursday to impose new grazing fees and establish revised land management policies for ranchers using federal land.
The measure, passed by a voice vote, now goes to the Senate floor where Democrats said they hoped to make changes in the bill they described as not going far enough to protect 260 million acres of federal grazing land.
Under the legislation, grazing fees would increase 30 percent, far below what the Clinton administration several years ago had said was justified to protect grazing land from overuse.
Under the plan, ranchers would have to pay $2.10 a month for each animal unit _ a cow and calves, or 7 sheep _ that grazes on Interior Department or U.S. Forest Service land. The Interior Department several years ago had proposed a fee of $3.96.
The legislation reflected a compromise offered by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who called it a middle ground between what has been sought by ranchers and environmentalists.
The bill would continue to give ranchers a significant role in developing land management plans, but also include participation from non-ranching interests. It also would allow greater public participation than an earlier version of the bill.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he continued to have concerns about whether the bill provides adequate protection of federal grazing land and the extent of public participation. But he said he would wait to work those issues out on the Senate floor.
``The bottom line is it doesn’t do very much except to reinforce the status quo _ to shore up ranchers’ position on public lands,″ said Karl Hess, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.
Domenici said it was essential for Congress to enact grazing reform and settle an issue that has been in limbo for several years. ``The ranching communities in the Western states need some form of stability,″ he said.
Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., criticized the new grazing fees, saying they still were far below what they should be to give a fair return to the federal government.
Many western states charge from $4 to nearly $11 a month per animal unit to use state land, while the legislation pending in Congress would increase the federal fee from $1.61 to $2.10, he said. ``Who can justify that.″
A half dozen ranchers were at the back of the hearing room. Afterward, they said uncertainties surrounding federal grazing policies needed to be resolved.
``We need stability, our bankers want stability,″ said Mike Guerry who uses 180,000 acres of federal grazing land along the Idaho-Nevada border for both sheep and cattle.