Cow Punchers

In April, the state auditor general released a report saying that the State Land Department was asleep on the job, allowing ranchers to renew grazing leases without putting them out to competitive bid, and virtually giving away northeast Phoenix and north Scottsdale to developers.

Then, in late July, Superior Court Judge Michael Dann ruled that because of the department's cozy relationship with the ranchers, it is not living up to its mission of maximizing the financial return from state trust lands and, therefore, is letting down Arizona's schoolchildren, who are supposed to benefit from money the trust land generates.

Two days later, a group of environmentalists applied to the department for grazing leases for "unranching," that is, to fence cows off the land and let it recuperate. Ranchers fretted, and the State Land Department stonewalled, saying that if the environmentalists don't graze, they can't have a grazing lease.

"It's an example of how you just can't win with the land department," says Tim Hogan, the attorney for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest who brought the suit against the department on behalf of Arizona schoolchildren. "The machinery has been carefully designed to support the ranching industry."

Hogan also expects to represent Forest Guardians, the environmental group seeking the grazing leases, which has promised to sue.

For several years, environmental groups and public advocates such as the Center for Law in the Public Interest, Forest Guardians and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, among others, have used the legal system to exert control over public lands and natural resources and the government agencies--state and federal--that have traditionally managed them on behalf of logging and ranching.

Increasingly, they are also attacking in the marketplace. For two years, the Southwest Center and Forest Guardians have held a stranglehold on the timber industry through federal court injunctions against logging--a dispute that last week was turned away from the U.S. Supreme Court. The center also has been trying for two years to buy timber sales in the national forests for the purpose of not cutting trees. It has received the same cold stares as the would-be "unranchers," an unofficial "I don't think so," while the agency heads try to figure a way out of a no-win predicament. Meanwhile, as the environmentalists threaten and the agencies stonewall, the rank-and-file ranchers and loggers watch their livelihoods turn into nostalgic memories of Americana.

"Rather than try to plead with the ranchers and the agencies about wildlife and environmental values that are difficult to quantify, [the environmentalists] are going right to the heart of the matter and trying to talk in terms more familiar to them, which is, 'Here's how much money we'll pay,'" says Rob Smith of the Sierra Club.

It's not so much that the environmentalists are trying to eliminate ranching and logging altogether. But those industries get such preferential treatment when it comes to regulation that they're practically subsidized by the state. Yet conservative Republicans, who often espouse privatization of government services, from prisons and fire departments to garbage collection and even toll roads, balk at even seriously discussing allowing a free market when it comes to grazing and logging. The environmentalists want to rock the boat to revamp the system.

"It's not just a free-market approach; it's recognition that a lot of our environmental problems have a real strong economic component," says Kieran Suckling of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson. "We've got an economic system designed to make money by destroying nature, whether it's timber sales or grazing allotments. A lot of groups, like ours, that traditionally did not deal with economics, are starting to look at ways to both expose and to take advantage of the economic system. Because the way it's set up now, they're just giving away trees and giving away grass to the ranchers and the loggers."

The grazing suit against the State Land Department was originally filed by Tim Hogan in April 1995, using the name of local activist Kay Jeffries, who has children in the Madison School District. Hogan notes that the Federal Enabling Act, which awarded the trust lands to the state, and the state constitution clearly state that grazing leases are not to exceed 10 years, after which they are supposed to be put up for bid on the open market. But only leaseholders are notified when a lease is about to expire and will be coming up for bid. There is no advertising, and the State Land Department has given such preference to leaseholders that, in 50 years, only once has a leaseholder been denied a renewal in the face of a competing bid. Hogan contends that this amounts to de facto long-term leases and a lack of competition that might bring higher prices for state land, which contradicts the department's mission of leasing or selling the land for the highest possible use to benefit the schools trust.