Cow Punchers

Ranching takes a blow in the courts, an uppercut to the bottom line and a jab in the marketplace

State Representative Franklin Flake of Snowflake noted that the report was so negative as to color a judge's opinion and "destroy the ranching industry as we know it."

The joint committees then voted to reject the auditor general's remarks on grazing and set up committees to decide what to do next. Then, the legislators slipped away so that by the time the more serious questions about development came up, there was no longer a quorum left to make decisions about anything else.

Ranchers at the hearing worried not only about losing their leases to competition. They also fear marauding environmentalists taking over those grazing allotments that contain water, consequently jeopardizing entire ranching operations.

In fact, the cattlemen may have reason to worry about such things. Two days after Judge Dann's July ruling, Forest Guardians, an environmental group headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, applied for grazing leases on three riparian areas in Arizona. Western Gamebird Alliance, a sportsmen's group from Tucson, also applied for a grazing allotment.

John Horning of Forest Guardians sent three checks totaling more than $6,000 to the State Land Department as payment in advance for the three allotments he wanted to lease; that represented two to five times what the current allotment lessees are paying.

One allotment of 162 acres is on the Babocomari River near Elgin, southwest of Tucson. The current lessee is paying $50.16 per year in grazing fees; Horning offered $250.80. The second allotment comprises 520 acres on a creek leading to the Gila River in Greenlee County. The current rancher pays $132 per year; Horning offered $501.60. The third lease covers 5,000 acres on Cataract Creek in northern Arizona which is currently ranched by the Babbitt family. The Babbitts pay $2,151 per year; Horning offered $4,303.73.

But the department sent his checks back, saying that he should have sent only applications. Furthermore, he was told in the letter accompanying the returned checks that his applications were "subject to rejection because, pursuant to your applications, you do not intend to put the lands to the use for which they are classified."

As Robert Yount of the State Land Department explains, "The problem is that the grazing lease is specific to the grazing of animals, and if you have any other use, you have another classification."

Yount insists that Horning needs to apply for a commercial lease, and if the department agreed to reclassify the land as commercial, then that "higher use" would take preference over grazing.

Horning refused, because he had no commercial plans for the land; he just wanted to rest it.

Tim Hogan, who will represent Horning and Forest Guardians if need be, says, "They're trying to suck us into a path where they can dictate."

And Horning protests, "Here's an institution that's legally responsible for maximizing revenue and they don't even want to know how much money you're offering."

Yount remains unimpressed. "If their interest is pure and they want to preserve certain riparian areas, there is a way to do that, and we would have to deal with that on its merit," he says. "If they want to get into the newspaper and cause a lot of controversy, then they may want to try to do something else."

But they had already done that something else in New Mexico. Last year the New Mexico state land department awarded Forest Guardians a lease on a 550-acre tract on the Rio Puerco in northwestern New Mexico, apparently the first time a western environmental group has succeeded in doing so. This spring the group's members planted 4,000 willows and a few hundred cottonwoods on the property.

"Six months of no grazing and a little jump-start on the restoration and it already looks dramatically different than the upstream and downstream," Horning says.

But to date, the Arizona State Land Department is not interested.
"Thus far it's been an unofficial response," Horning says. "They say unless you're engaged in the livestock business, you're not a valid leaseholder of an agricultural lease.

"We're definitely going to court."
Southwestern environmental groups are also trying to pioneer free-market tactics in Arizona's national forests to purchase trees to keep them from being cut. But their dealings with the U.S. Forest Service are as strained as with the Arizona State Land Department.

"We ran into the same thing when we tried to bid on timber sales," says Kieran Suckling of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. "The first response was that only timber operators are allowed to bid on timber sales. We said, 'Hey, our money is as green as theirs.' They said, 'No, it's not.'"

The U.S. Forest Service sells trees in several ways. One is in timber sales, in which it marks specific green trees over a large area for cutting and then puts them out to bid to the logging companies. But the agency also issues permits to smaller operators to harvest firewood and Christmas trees and vigas (the beams of New Mexico-style houses).

In 1995, the Southwest Center bought a permit to cut vigas from a salvage sale, that is, in an area that had burned in the Chiricahua Mountains. Then it chose not to cut the trees. But since the group didn't log, the Forest Service issued another permit to someone else who did.

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