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As federal officials espoused changes in range management in public meetings throughout the state Wednesday, environmental and agriculture interests staged dueling press conferences to voice their displeasure with the reforms.

To hear the agricultural community tell it, the reforms are unnecessary. The range is in better condition than it has been in a century and proposed increases in grazing fees would devastate rural economies, they say.C. Booth Wallentine, executive vice president of the Utah Farm Bureau, described the grazing fee increases as a "straw man," intended to detract attention from other issues that would have long-lasting impact, such as the federal ownership of new water developed on Bureau of Land Management lands for livestock watering.

"Any time you develop water hereafter, you don't have the water rights," Wallentine said.

But environmentalists argue the reforms don't go far enough.

Doug Walton, conservation chair of the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, said that the serious flaws of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit's proposal, Rangeland Reform '94, need to be reconciled if there is to be any turnaround in the "impoverished" condition of public rangeland.

Charles Gay, a range science professor at Utah State University, disagrees. "Quite honestly, I don't see how this rangeland reform is any improvement over the current situation," Gay said. "Our rangelands are in better condition than they have been in the past 100 years and the trend is improving."

Lawson LeGate, the Sierra Club's southwest representative, said the Department of Interior needs to go back to the drawing board with the rangeland plan.

"This is a proposal that initially was designed to improve the health of our public rangelands, much of which is in a degraded condition as a result of problems with poor management of grazing. Unfortunately, while there is some good to the proposal, there is too much that is as yet undone - not proposed or too weak in the proposal," LeGate said.

Particularly, the Sierra Club members and Michael Jones, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the proposed grazing-fee increase is too small.

"The cost of administering the range program in 1990 (which even the administration admits was an inadequate program) was over $3.20 per animal unit month to administer the program," Jones said. "The incentive grazing program of the Clinton plan, however, will raise fess to just $2.77."

Mike Spencer, whose family operates a 1,000-head cattle ranch near Yost, Box Elder County, said the reforms would cost the operation at least $10,000 more a year. Under the proposal, grazing fees would increase to nearly $4 per animal unit month by 1997. An animal unit month is the charge assessed for the forage required to feed a cow and its calf for a month.

"I think right now we can pay that, but how many years down the road can we do that?" Yost said at the Farm Bureau press conference.

Mark Walsh, executive director of the Utah Association of Counties, said the rule changes proposed in "Rangeland Reform '94" will greatly affect the way ranchers have traditionally done business in this state.

"In many of these counties, it's the major aspect of their economies," he said.

Conservationists also said they were concerned with advisory committees which the BLM has proposed for the the grazing program. Christine Osborne, a Sierra Club public lands committee member said the plan gives unfair control to ranchers.

LeGate said, "It (the advisory committee plan) is a proposal that seems to fly in the face of President Truman's famous sign that the `buck stops here.' Instead, because of the design of the proposed grazing advisory boards, the buck stops in Cedar City, Utah; Pineville, Oregon; and Susanville, Calif., just to name a few."

LeGate said despite the sentiments of ranchers, he believes that there is just as much support in the West, particularly in urban centers, for rangeland reform as there is in other parts of the nation.

The reforms are subject of public meetings being conducted today in 11 Western states, five in Utah. Public comment will be accepted in Salt Lake this evening from 7 to 10 p.m. at the public library.

Written comments will be accepted through July 28. Mail them to Rangeland Reform '94. P.O. Box 66300, Washington, DC 20035-6300.