The House voted Tuesday to more than quadruple grazing fees on public lands.
Utah cattlemen fear that will financially devastate 1,500 family ranchers in the state, but environmental groups say it is a step toward wiser range management and ending damage from overgrazing."What happens to you if they raise gasoline 500 percent, or groceries? This kind of increase makes it prohibitive to even stay in business," Utah Cattlemen's Association President Glen Larsen said. "This will affect about 1,500 family ranchers in Utah."
On the other side, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance issues coordinator Ken Rait said, "We have subsidized the cattle industry long enough through extinction and extirpation of species, predator-control projects and chaining projects. This is a step in the right direction and shows times are changing."
The fee increase came as the House voted 232-192 to adopt an amendment by Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., to the Interior Appropriations Act. All Utah members opposed it. The whole bill was later passed and sent to the Senate on a 345-76 vote.
Western senators - who wield more power than Western members in the House have - immediately vowed to kill the grazing fee, as they did last year when the House passed a similar bill.
"It will be a long, cold day before we ever allow that to pass," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We will do whatever is necessary - whatever."
President Bush has also threatened to veto any bill with such a large grazing fee increase.
The amendment passed by the House would increase the fees from $1.97 to $8.70 a month per cow and calf over five years, a 340 percent increase. Supporters say that will bring the fee closer to what is charged on private land.
Synar said ranchers are not meeting even the administrative cost of grazing programs and are damaging public lands through overgrazing.
"While ranchers using private or state lands can pay a fee as high as $18, those few ranchers who get to use federal rangelands pay only $1.97 per animal unit month," Synar said.
"This support for a few ranchers is basically a welfare system for the 2 percent of America's 1.6 million cattle producers who can use U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service" land.
But Larsen with the Utah Cattlemen's Association said, "What Eastern congressmen don't understand is that besides paying a grazing fee, ranchers on public land have to put up fences, develop water sources, hire herders and put out salt. On private land, the landowner pays for all that."
He said a grazing fee increase would hit hardest in Utah in rural areas where most ranchers graze on public land at least part of the year. He said most ranchers along the Wasatch Front use private land.
Rep. Jim Hansen told the House, "Well over 50 percent of the livestock in Utah depend on public land forage at some time of the year.
"The majority of rural communities in the West are economically dependent on the use of the public lands for grazing livestock. The loss of the livestock industry would threaten the existence of schools, businesses and public services."
He also quoted BLM predictions that grazing fee revenue would decrease from $18 million to $1 million a year from ranchers going out of business, and quoted government studies saying ranchers have improved the quality of rangelands.
Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, chaffed at arguments that lower grazing fees are a subsidy of ranchers.
He told the House that on Utah BLM lands, about a fifth of the available grazing on public lands in Utah go unused because of additional high non-fee costs - which average $10.41 in Utah for such things as fences and water development.
"Who ever heard of a government subsidy that was undersubscribed?" he asked.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, noted that on this bill, he opposed environmentalists with whom he normally agreed and supported ranchers with whom he often fights on such issues as how much wilderness to create.
"If cattle or sheep are overgrazing the land - and they very well might be in places - it is intellectually more honest . . . to address the problem through additional protective regulations instead of simply pricing ranchers out of existence," he said.