Blood, Sweat and Steers

Ranchers who run cattle on State Trust Lands may soon have competition for the publicly subsidized grazing leases they've always enjoyed. But not every rancher is getting fat off the land.

Not anymore, according to Tucson-based author Greg McNamee, who writes frequently about resource issues. "They now don't have a lot of say, and they hate it," he tells me. "The influential people now are big business and Glendale car dealers."

There are environmentalists who see ranchers as an enemy to be fought and defeated, and in the past decade ranchers have found their property vandalized in acts of "ecotage." McNamee, however, isn't without sympathy for the ranchers' case. "They couldn't survive without subsidy. But pretty much the entire West would collapse if it wasn't for subsidy. And you can go further than that and realize that the country itself depends on subsidy."

So, even though some ranchers may be indulging an expensive hobby, is there any reason they should be denied subsidy when other businesses receive it?

Yes, according to environmentalists, who believe grazing is so damaging to the land that they applied to the State Land Department for grazing leases for the purposes of "unranching"--fencing off the land to keep cows away and let the land recover. The Land Department responded by saying that you can't have a grazing lease if you're not going to graze. The department refused offers from environmentalists of double what the ranchers were paying for the leases.

Then the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest brought a lawsuit on behalf of Arizona's schoolchildren. As State Trust Land is supposed to be used to make the highest possible profit, which benefits schools, it was argued that the department was failing in its duty. And that's how Judge Dann saw it.

The outcome of his ruling is not clear. "It's in the hands of the Legislature," says State Land Commissioner Dennis Wells. "They're working on a piece of legislation to address the court order." The legislation, which is sponsored by Gail Griffin, co-chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, dictates that grazing leases must be advertised, and defines subleases. This is pretty much what Judge Dann ordered.

Bob Yount, director of the Land Department's Natural Resources Division, plays down the threat to the ranchers' livelihood.

"They have had the leases for a long period of time. They are 10-year leases, and they do expire, and they have been renewed, and the ranchers have had control of the land," Yount says. "The judge has said we need to increase the amount of competition we get on our grazing leases. We have to advertise them, and if there's a conflict, we have to have a bidding process. We have to do that so the trust gets more money. We're still talking about using the land for grazing. If someone wants to use it for something else, nongrazing, it would have to be reclassified to a commercial lease, because 'commercial' includes all other uses."

Yount says people are free to apply for reclassification of grazing lands for other uses.

Tim Hogan, the attorney who handled the lawsuit for the Center for Law in the Public Interest, sees it differently.

"The judge decided that the existing system is illegal, and that the state is failing its trust. It's a giveaway of trust land," Hogan says. "Our concern is appropriate use of public trust land, and, in some cases, conservation of the land.

"The situation right now is that there's been an appeal, and that'll drag on for a while. They're trying to fix a bill at the Legislature that will convince the court that they've solved the problem."

If Hogan seems skeptical about the Legislature's ability to address the problem, it's because he's got plenty of experience dealing with lawmakers. He also brought the lawsuit that resulted in the state Supreme Court ruling that Arizona's system of capital school finance is unconstitutional. Twice, the Legislature has claimed to have fixed the school capital finance inequities. Each time, Hogan thought otherwise, and the courts, upon reviewing the legislation, have agreed with him.

Jean Schwennesen has a different concern. "If we didn't have those grazing rights, we couldn't survive."

Although it's difficult not to sympathize with the ranchers, at first it seems just as difficult to defend their position on logical rather than sentimental grounds. Schwennesen affectionately describes her place as "a rural slum."

"We live on a cactus-infested rock pile--but it's our cactus-infested rock pile," she says.

Her commitment to the place is impressive; she and her husband, Eric, live seven miles from the nearest phone, with a lifestyle that makes slum living seem luxurious. Asked why they do it, she says, "Because we like it."

If people are willing to endure such hardship, it may seem churlish to deny them assistance. But is this really more than subsidized camping? If a person's chosen way of life is anachronistic--and, in practical terms, hardly indispensable to society as a whole--should his way of life be given government support just because he likes it?

The societal value of the lifestyle is not obvious when I talk to Jean Schwennesen on the phone. But, when I visit her ranch, one thing becomes very clear . . .

If ranching is to escape being consigned to history, it will be because of people like Jean and Eric Schwennesen.

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