January 25, 2005

The New Mexican

Editorial: Grazing-lease buyouts? Idea has some promise

After years of often-confrontational tactics toward New Mexico ranchers and other traditional lifestyles, Forest Guardians are trying a creative approach to cutting back the number of cattle tromping through public lands.

The Santa Fe-based bunch of environmentalists, and others from around the West, are lobbying Congress to buy up, and retire, federal grazing leases.

Some of their causes have been good ones -- especially raising public awareness of how hard cattle can be on land and streams in a state short on water. A decade or so ago, they went into competition with ranchers, seeking to outbid a few of them when it came time to renewing federal leases.

Where their adversaries were corporate ranch-owners, the enviros gained sympathy for their strategy. But New Mexico has plenty of stockmen barely surviving after paying today's grazing-lease rates. Putting them in a bidding war with a bunch of trustafarians hardly seemed fair, regardless of how well, or how poorly, the stockgrowers were caring for the land they were renting from their fellow taxpayers.

As the ranchers noted, their way of life is becoming hard enough to sustain, without a bunch of city dudes second-guessing their arduous work.

Thus the latest approach: Set aside some federal funds to buy out some of the ranchers -- beginning, perhaps, with those getting too old to run livestock, and whose kids aren't dying to fill dad and mom's stirrups. It's an idea slowly gaining acceptance among at least a few dozen ranchers in New Mexico, and perhaps a couple of hundred in Arizona. It also has caught the attention of some members of Congress, a few of whose constituents might be weary of caring for range cattle in the face of mass-produced meat.

Sen. Pete Domenici, famed for his fiscal prudence, can be counted on to raise tough questions about such a bill. After all, he notes, ranchers already can sell their cattle -- and their grazing permits.

And there's the bigger issue of New Mexico's traditional communities: If too many leases are sold back to the government, it could be the death of some towns and villages serving surrounding ranches.

Part of any buyout bill should be a counter-program encouraging new generations of cattle growers -- or transfers of leases within communities. More careful land stewardship would be taught to the heirs/transferees.

Still, the Guardians hope those ranchers who are at least willing to talk about a buyout might open the door to such a possibility -- especially if our state's long drought continues to make ranching even more difficult.

The enviros should take a gradual approach, for many reasons, including a couple of easy objections:

   It would be an incursion on a colorful and respected way of life.

   It could get expensive.

And whatever the degree of enthusiasm among some of our state's ranchers, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association is agin' it.

If the notion is to succeed, it will have to be carried out selectively, and on a small scale.

To push this through Congress will take more than just diplomacy; it also demands patience -- neither of which has been a hallmark of Forest Guardians and their Western-state counterparts. And it also demands a willingness to consider the future of our state's ranching communities.