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Under the guise of environmentalism and economics - neither of which are valid in this case - some members of Congress are once again trying to raise grazing fees dramatically for ranchers who use public lands. If they succeed, it could put most small ranchers in the West out of business.

It's no coincidence that the effort to hike grazing fees by nearly 500 percent gets most of its support from those in Congress who have no public lands in their states and thus have little understanding of the problem.But Westerners know better - particularly in states like Utah, Nevada and Arizona - where, with their huge tracts of federal acreage, it is virtually impossible to run a ranching operation without using public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management estimates that 87 percent of ranchers who graze cattle on public land are small, family operations. These people, who run 500 head of cattle or less, make an average of $28,000 per household and would never survive a huge increase in grazing fees.

The so-called Synar Amendment, sponsored by Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., would raise the grazing fee from its present level of just under $2 per animal per month to a new base of $8.70. The argument is that since fees for grazing on private land are much higher, the low public land fee amounts to a subsidy.

Yet that ignores the fact that a rancher who pays to have his livestock graze on someone's private land or a feedlot essentially has no other responsibility until he collects his cattle at the allotted time.

The rancher who grazes his herds on public land must pay out of his own pocket for upkeep on the land, for providing water and salt and fencing, and hire workers to care for the cattle. It's like the difference between renting a furnished apartment and an unfurnished one.

The fee system was worked out in 1978 to end old misunderstandings about public land grazing. The formula is indexed to the market price of beef cattle, production costs, and private forage rental rates. It's a fair system and one that is supported by the BLM and Forest Service, who oppose any change.

Part of the argument for raising fees is that grazing cattle ruin the public lands. The truth is that ranchers have a vested interested in keeping the land healthy, since they are the ones hurt if it is not. Range science has only come into its own in the past 40 years and most public lands used by ranchers are in better shape today than they were in the 1930s.

The piping of water and the improvement of forage help wildlife as well. Studies have indicated that if ranchers were driven off public lands by higher fees, the federal government would have to assume significant costs to maintain those acres as required by law. Some environmental groups are now opposing the fee hike proposal.

Arguments are made that raising the fees would add $325 million to the federal treasury. But if the higher fees bankrupt ranchers, the federal government not only would fail to see any increase, the present income from grazing fees would drop dramatically. Where are the savings?

The House passed a fee hike bill in 1990, but wisely, nothing was done in the Senate. Synar - who has no public land in his state - has less support this time around so is trying a different approach, inserting the fee proposal as an amendment to the Interior Appropriations Bill. This makes it more difficult to combat directly.

Yet the arguments in behalf of raising grazing fees simply do not hold up; in fact, they are counterproductive. Congress should kill the Synar Ameendment and put this issue to rest once and for all.