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Environmentalists urged Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt not to be "cowed" by agricultural interests, as a 30-member advisory council meets this week to develop recommendations for a public-land grazing incentive program.

Environmental groups picketed the Silver King Hotel Tuesday, where the three-day meeting was starting. Some passed out "Babbitt bucks" representing what they consider a multimillion-dollar handout to ranchers, while others carried signs such as one that said, "Range reform: aid to dependent cattlemen.""He sold us down the river," said Ken Rait, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "Every time the secretary comes west of the Mississippi, things only get worse."

Environmentalists espouse that incentives won't ensure proper land management. Instead, poor land managers should have their grazing permits yanked, they say.

But inside the hotel, representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior urged the diverse panel of agriculture, environmental and conservation interests to work together to advise Babbitt on developing grazing-fee incentive guide-lines.

Rangeland Reform '94, a Clinton administration proposal that would make sweeping changes in public-lands management policy, would double grazing fees on public land. But ranchers who demonstrate proper stewardship would be eligible for rebates.

The advisory panel is charged with recommending criteria for the incentives.

"What this meeting does, it establishes a base to get your viewpoints and your opinions out, not only for the agencies to hear, but for you to hear each other. To me, that is how progress is made," said Adela Backiel, deputy assistant secretary for natural resources and the environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Throughout the range-reform debate, Babbitt has stressed that diverse groups must form a consensus on land use, or the decisions will be made by people less connected to the land.

Hardy Redd, a La Sal, San Juan County rancher who is on the panel, said he has learned the value of compromise. "These ideas of cooperating with people and working with people can work. When I give in, I find the range cons (conservationists) and state director will sometimes give in to me, and I want some things des-per-ate-ly."

Coming from a different perspective, Chris Maser, a Corvallis, Ore., environmental consultant, asked his fellow panel members to work toward consensus through honest debate.

"We cannot afford a single hidden agenda that is not laid out," he said.