Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's hasty retreat this week on higher grazing fees indicates the Clinton administration has learned a difficult lesson about the need to build a support base in the West.

Certainly, higher fees can be justified, but the secretary's attempts to ramrod a doubling of fees despite the protests of ranchers and Western lawmakers was unwise. Worse, it was extraordinarily poor judgment on the part of a man who, as a former governor of Arizona, should have known better.Babbitt failed to get the increase through Congress, and his plan to force it with an executive order now has fallen victim to the political reality of a new Republican Congress.

Had the issue of grazing fees been handled more sensibly, an increase already could have been in place. Cattlemen now pay $1.98 per cow to graze on federal land. Critics say that isn't enough to cover the cost of maintaining the land, nor is it enough to repair the environmental damage the cows cause.

But Babbitt originally proposed raising the fees to $4.28 per cow - a level that could have driven marginal operations to extinction. That was difficult to understand in light of the president's talk about building the economy and helping small businesses. He later modified the proposal, making it an incremental increase to $3.96, but by then the battles lines were drawn.

Babbitt should keep this experience in mind as he tries to impose the rest of his proposed grazing reforms, which still make ranchers apprehensive.

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Babbitt still wants a series of changes that would result in more clout for federal bureaucrats and less autonomy for ranchers. Among them is a plan to give the federal government title to all future improvements on federal lands, such as fences and wells - improvements ranchers build with their own money.

The secretary said he is backing off of the fee increases in order to help his chances for the other reforms. But the tactic probably won't work, at least not without a lot of compromise. Meanwhile, the Republican Congress seems likely to pass a modest grazing-fee increase, particularly in light of the need to raise revenue to cover tax cuts.

With Babbitt's latest reversal, the Clinton administration appears to be stepping up its post-election about-face. In recent days, Babbitt has agreed to increase cruise ship visits to Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and has started a review of federal Western land holdings that could lead to the return of state control for 30 million acres - steps the administration previously opposed.

Grazing reforms are needed. Many of the administration's environmental concerns are not without merit. But Babbitt's bullying tactics have generated little but ill-will in large segments of the West. Let's hope he now turns to a strategy of consultation and conciliation.

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