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NEW GOP POWER KILLS GRAZING-FEE HIKE

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Republican landslides last month claimed another Democratic victim Wednesday: the Clinton administration's proposed doubling of grazing fees in the West.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt abandoned it because of opposition by Westerners - who have more power than ever in the new GOP-controlled Congress.Babbitt is still pushing other controversial rangeland reforms such as new rules about how much grazing is allowed, and giving the federal government title to all new public-lands grazing water rights and all privately constructed improvements, such as fences and water systems, on public lands.

With the capitulation on grazing fees and the pursuit of the other rules, Babbitt is finding himself in familiar territory - caught between the ire of environmentalists and the wrath of ranchers.

Babbitt says he dropped the proposed higher grazing fees only to give the other reforms a better chance of survival - fearing that leaving them tied together would doom them all.

"We did not develop a consensus on the fee issue," Babbitt said. "Congress has expressed a strong interest in examining the full pricing of natural resources in its upcoming session. I believe the grazing fee is best handled by Congress in this context."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was among several Westerners who wrote Babbitt in recent days vowing a war with the administration if it tried to make its rangeland reform proposal final. The reform would have, by 1997, raised grazing fees from $1.98 to $3.96 per month per cow.

Sierra Club regional representative Lawson LeGate said, "This is a great case of the tail wagging the dog."

If Congress doesn't reform the grazing fee, which it probably won't, then it's being hypocritical, LeGate said.

"The new Congress has come to power with promise to cut government subsidies and in the case of the grazing fee, we have a program that is subsidized by the American taxpayer. The people who call themselves fiscal conservatives need to stop being two-faced about it."

Brent Tanner, executive vice president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, said the fee issue may give ranchers breathing room, but it is a temporary comfort.

"The grazing fee is just one component of a very scary set of reforms. As for the rest of the reforms, we'll have to see what's there. As written, they are really risky for agriculture, as was the fee issue. It's (fees) one segment of a large reform package. It's not like he totally backed away from it. He's put it back in Congress' hands," Tanner said.

But Vic Saunders of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation said he believes Congress will scrub the remainder of the reforms as well.

"What he's still pushing for what we thought was most unfair was taking away water right and paying for improvements they can't own. It flies right in the face in the Constitution," Saunders said. "We're sure from what we've heard from our congressional delegation and other members of Congress in the West, that he's not going to get that part either."

Babbitt said that at the request of Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., he is also delaying other reforms for six months to give the new Congress time to review them - saying that is the only way to prevent long-term gridlock.

LeGate said the six-month delay could effectively kill any reforms. "He's given the advantage to his opponents. This could steamroll. Why give them six months to comment when everyone has had plenty of time to review this?"

While environmentalists and ranchers argued whether Babbitt's reforms would help rangelands, Babbitt also released Wednesday a final environmental impact statement about the expected effects of his department's preferred reform alternative, which would have included the now-abandoned higher grazing fees.

The study said it would restore health to 100,000 acres of riparian, or streamside, habitat; bring 20 million acres of upland habitat into proper functioning condition; improve watershed by reducing erosion; and result in growth in fishing and hunting that benefit from improved resources.

The action Wednesday is just the latest of several concessions that Babbitt has made to the West after the election.

Earlier this week, he agreed to a request from incoming Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, to increase cruise ship visits to Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park. And he began a review of which federal lands may be given back to states.

When reporters asked him about such concessions, Babbitt said, "Reform is the art of the possible."