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ACROSS THE ARID Western states, a small special-interest group unknown to most Americans is getting ready to celebrate a historic land grab of one-eighth of the United States.

These are the 23,000 public lands ranchers. The imminent passage of the Rangelands Management Act will seal their control over 260 million acres of Western public lands.Most Americans don't know cowboy culture from John Wayne and Hollywood Westerns. Ranchers, with the help of the Wise Use movement, exploit this ignorance by emphasizing the mythology and romance of the West.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, claims the legislation will "allow a historic way of life to continue to flourish in this modern world."

This "historic way of life" amounts to little more than cowboy welfare. Public lands ranchers cost the American taxpayer more than $200 million in direct subsidies every year and billions of dollars in cumulative damages on our public lands. They are charged below market rate for the forage their sheep and cattle eat. They are not charged at all for the forage eaten by calves and lambs.

The government spends $30 million a year killing predators and strips native vegetation to "enhance" forage. When forage is reduced by overgrazing, the ranchers receive "emergency feed" free from Uncle Sam. Often, their overgrazing is sanctioned by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, which nominally oversee the pillage.

A century of this largesse to public lands ranchers has caused the extraordinary destruction of the Western landscape and the animals and plants that flourished here. Nine out of 10 streams have been severely damaged by livestock mismanagement. Horrific erosion, filthy water and uprooted riparian trees and shrubs mar the range. Whole fisheries have been destroyed, and tens of thousands of miles of streams have dried up.

The average welfare rancher receives the equivalent of $20,000 per year in federal handouts, more than double the average welfare receipts for families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Some ranchers receive much more.

Only 10 percent of public lands ranchers control 75 percent of forage on federal lands. The 20 largest welfare ranchers - including four billionaires! - control more than 20 million acres of public land.

On private ranch lands, forage costs an average of five times what public lands ranchers currently pay. And in the past 10 years, the amount paid for federal forage has dropped 60 percent when adjusted for inflation. Yet public lands ranchers continually plead dire straits, fighting even modest environmental reform with vigor.

Public lands ranchers are economically incidental to the country and to the very states in which they operate. They produce only 2.5 percent of our beef. If they all disappeared tomorrow, no change in hamburger prices would occur.

The ranchers, in collusion with the Wise Use movement, want Americans to believe that the rural economy of the West depends on keeping the range open for exploitation. But because many public lands ranchers run marginal economic operations, they depend on second jobs in small rural towns. Small towns support ranchers, not the other way around.

How did this tiny group get a hammerlock on handouts from Uncle Sam in an age of Republican ascendancy? First, they are almost entirely white Anglo-Saxon males. Second, they wrap themselves in the mythology of roundups, chuck wagons and freedom on the frontier. Third, in alliance with timber, mining, banking and the off-road vehicle industry, they have real clout through their campaign contributions.