A central role in grazing reform

A central role in reform of livestock grazing on public lands

Bruce Babbitt portrait
former Arizona Governor and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Bruce Babbitt, who had served as Governor of Arizona and sought the presidency, to be U.S Secretary of the Interior. Babbitt announced he wanted to reform livestock grazing on federal public lands and held hearings about that around the West.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives, under Democrats control, took up the issue and focussed on the subsidy that ranchers receive in the form of low fees for their use of public lands. They pay much more for the use of private lands. Ranchers argued that they get much more for their money on private lands, so the discount makes sense. Environmentalists argued that the cattle and sheep are trashing the public lands, so whey give them a deal? Babbitt held hearings around the West to listen.

Cattlemen and environmentalists had many political conflicts in the 1980s, but we also had learned to work together to fight a common enemy, the Front Range cities who wanted to take Gunnison River water to water suburban lawns. As the date of Babbitt’s grazing hearing in Grand Junction, CO, neared, the boards of High Country Citizens’ Alliance and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association independently discussed the issue and each decided to call the other group. When rancher Bill Trampe — who owned more land than anyone in the county — called me about the hearing, I told him that HCCA did not care about grazing fees or the subsidy. What we care about is the health of the public lands and the urban sprawl when ranchers sell their scenic, ecologically valuable, private lands. He said the ranchers in Gunnison care about wildlife and try to take good care of the lands. So we collaborated in our testimonies at the March, 1993 hearing, with Trampe talking about stewardship and keeping our rural places beautiful and less developed, and me talking about the fees and sprawl and land health topics. At the end of the hearing, Babbitt made a comment, “I’m beginning to think I should turn this whole grazing thing over to the High Country Citizens’ Alliance.” We drove the three hours home quite elated and high!

letterhead of the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association

A couple weeks later, I got a call from rancher Ken Spann, who I had worked with on water and against on public and private lands regulations. He asked that we meet at Donita’s Cantina, a popular Mexican restaurant. A few from each group showed up and we sat in Donita’s lounge. They proposed that HCCA and the Stockgrowers Association should draft our own proposal for public grazing reform. “Sounds interesting,” I replied. “But, at least for argument’s sake, why should we do this?” “Because we’re the only ones who can,” replied Spann. That convinced me and my board and we jumped into weekly meetings the Stockgrowers to discuss the rules governing grazing. We oriented around grazing in the national forests, because the Gunnison National Forest is the entity most of us use and enjoy. There are also significant acreage of lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Gunnison Basin.

We finished our proposal in May and mailed it to various officials. One of the ranchers knew the Governor Roy Romer and Romer attended a Stockgrowers board meeting in Gunnison where we discussed our idea. He volunteered to bring it to Babbitt during an upcoming trip together.

Crested Butte holds a rather long, joyous, exhilirating parade on the Fourth of July. High Country Citizens’ Alliance always participates. For this July 4th, we themed our float “Cows Not Condos.” A group of HCCA actors portrayed, on a moving, flatbed truck, the cattle threatened by an evil land developer. A columnist for the Denver Post watched us, then called me, then wrote a great article about our grazing reform proposal. A short time later, the Los Angeles Times picked up the story.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives passed its bill with the grazing fee increase and sent it to the U.S. Senate, also held by Democrats at the time. A majority favored the bill. But the Senate has the filibuster rule and Republican senators from states of the West blocked the bill. The Senate actually held three “cloture” votes, where if 60 senators vote yes then the filibuster is stopped and they proceed to a vote.

The defeat of the grazing reform bill in Congress politically bruised both Secretary Babbitt and Governor Romer, who had argued in its favor. So they turned to us.

One day in September, I got this phone call from the Governor’s office. “The Governor would like to see you tomorrow” (in Denver, a four-hour drive). Ken Spann got the same call. When you get a call like that, you drop everything. Romer had summoned some other moderate ranchers and environmentalists to the Capitol and the Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Bob Armstrong, joined us. Romer placed a phone call to Babbitt in DC using a speakerphone. Babbitt said, “You know, people have been saying that I’m not listening to the people of the West. Well, I’ve held eight hearings and I have heard many stories and I have met with many people. Now I want to meet with this group. I’ll be there next week.”

Uh-oh… I have to drive to Denver again next week.

Ken and I again drove together. This time, word had got out and we faced the lights and cameras and microphones of TV news as we walked into Romer’s office. Then Babbitt strode in, the cameras flashed, he shook a bunch of hands and took a seat right next to me. He spoke about the issue, then repeated the bit about how he had already been meeting and talking with various folks around the West. He noted that he knew of a number of groups like ours, where local folks of differing interests got together and made consensus decisions to solve some resource problems. “To show you and everyone that I’m serious about listening to people in the West, I’m going to come to Colorado and meet with this group once a week for the next eight weeks and we’re going to figure out this grazing thing together.”

Uh-oh, there goes my life for the next two months.

Well, we did exactly that. An expanded group of ranchers and environmentalists, supported by Interior Department policy staff, hashed out new grazing rules. A couple weeks into the process, Babbitt and Romer flew to Gunnison to meet with us locals. NBC Nightly News covered this event and interviewed me. The News editors cut me in with one sentence reaching that national audience.

A bigger honor for me came when the Chicago Tribune covered our work with a front-page story that included a front-page pull quote by Gary Sprung! I grew up in the Chicago area. My mom got a lot of phone calls from family and friends that day.

Chicago Tribune, page one, December 20, 1993:

You want ranchers to adopt reform because they care, not because someone is forcing it down their throats.”

Environmentalist Gary Sprung

Our group discussion focussed on two main policy ideas:

  • We need better rules to regulate livestock grazing so the cattle and sheep don’t trash the land and waterways.
  • People in the West actually can get together and come to agreement about some contentious issues. Let them try.

We basically ignored the grazing fees issue.

The Secretary of the Interior has the authority to promulgate rules on his/her own. The Secretary does not need Congress’s approval. Secretary Bruce Babbitt created new rules that we helped formulate. He gave each of 11 western states the opportunity to develop their own standards and guidelines, hopefully using collaborative groups like ours. If any state did not invent such rules by the deadline, then a set of rules developed by the Interior Department would come to force change. Only Wyoming failed to come through with a set of its own grazing regulations.

Babbitt also created “Resource Advisory Councils”, groups of 15 citizens representing various interests who would advise the BLM on any land management issues, not just grazing. I got appointed to one of those and spent five years advising the Southwest Colorado District of the BLM. The “RACs” officially implemented a collaboration and consensus process. The Governor of each state nominated the members, and the Secretary of the Interior appointed them. Each RAC had three groups of five people. One group represented “extractive” users such as mining or ranching. Another group was mainly conservation/environment people. The third represented local government and other miscellaneous uses and users of BLM lands. To make a decision, all three groups had to agree — consensus. But within each group it was traditional, democratic majority rule. Three of the five had to vote yes. In other words, not unanimous consensus, but enough agreement among different people to call it broad consensus. This arrangement brought consensus to group decision-making without letting single individuals or smaller groups torpedo proposals.

RACs formed all over the West and they really did make a difference in public participation and helped BLM to take better care of our lands and helped build relationships among different people. But when George Bush was elected President and Republicans got control of Congress, the Old West politicians and most ranching leaders stopped talking about collaboration and consensus. The RACs dwindled in relevance. Nonetheless, we did make the standards and guidelines; real rules that, at least to some extent, prevent overgrazing and the destruction of streams.

Sadly, these rules don’t apply to the national Forest Service, which governs the lands our Gunnison group had focussed on. It’s called the USDA Forest Service because the agency sits within the Department of Agriculture, not Interior. The Secretary of Agriculture at that time had little interest in public lands and did not participate.


“Traditional Enemies Seek Common Ground on Grazing”, Hugh Dellios, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 20, 1993, page one

“Cows Not Condos: Ranchers and environmentalists pull together to save their valley”, Eric Grant, Beef Today, Oct. 1993

Gnurps slide show: Ranchers and land managers on a range ride