Cow Punchers

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On September 17, the Natural Resources Committees of the state House and Senate held a hearing on the auditor general's findings on the State Land Department. The legislative reaction to the audit could have been predicted by the tone of a video that began the ceremonies, a rosy picture of how more and more environmentalists were finally realizing how beneficial grazing is for the environment.

State Senator Gus Arzberger of Willcox drawled into his microphone at the head table in the hearing room, "I don't think there was enough research done on this for the auditor general's report to be reliable."

He got a round of applause from all the folks in the room decked out in cowboy hats and boots and jeans, which constituted the majority (and stood in stark contrast to the developers with their loafers and cell phones) who had come to take its own shots at the young bureaucrat from the Auditor General's Office.

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.

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Michael Kiefer