The threat to western ranching eases as environmentalists decide they'd rather see cows than subdivisions.

By Drive almost anywhere in the West and chances are you're on federal land. Fortunately, the federal government lets ranchers use the land. Without it, many ranches would fail.

But for years, western ranchers have lived with the threat that one way or another they'd lose that right. Either they would be priced out of business through higher grazing fees, smothered in environmental regulations, or simply told they couldn't use it.

Environmentalists, who charged that grazing ruined the land, were usually at the forefront of efforts to boot the ranchers. Cattlemen still remember the environmental slogan "Cattle Free in '93."

That was then. Today, a pro-business Congress is considering rangeland reform that would actually help western ranchers stay in business. And, many scientific studies show rangeland does better when it's grazed than when it's not. But, the biggest surprise is coming from environmentalists. A growing number of environmental groups are actively lobbying to keep ranchers in business.

Many environmentalists have discovered that the biggest threat to western ecology is development. For example, when a ranch is lost, construction crews usually move in.

"There's no question in our minds that we'd rather have a good, responsible agricultural operation than a subdivision," says Bob Ekey, spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC). The GYC is an alliance of environmental and business groups trying to protect 16 million acres around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks from rampant development.

Urbanization is spreading across the West, often hitting the best wildlife habitat. Montana offers a prime example. "In Bozeman, the west side of Bridger Mountain has been world class mule deer habitat," says Ekey. "In the last decade, we've seen houses march up the southwest side of that range as ranches were lost."

Stages Of Development The development scenario usually unfolds in two stages. First, a rancher either is forced out of business or decides to quit. The federal land he used is still off limits to developers, but he's free to sell any of his own land. Often developers are the highest bidder.

Unfortunately, the privately owned land usually is the best wildlife habitat because it's more likely than federal land to contain streams and rivers. The problem is compounded because the privately owned land makes up a critical component of winter wildlife range.

There's plenty of higher elevation land to feed wildlife in the warm months. But in the winter, bad weather and lack of forage at higher elevations squeeze wildlife into lower elevations. This is the land most likely to fall to development.

So, many environmentalists want to keep the ranchers. And, the environmentalists know the key to doing that is continued use of federal land. It's a fact of life that many western ranches wouldn't be profitable if they lost use of this land.

"It would probably downsize our operation by two-thirds if we lost federal land," says Carol Hamilton, who runs a 600-head cow-calf operation near Rock Springs, WY. "We would not be able to stay in ranching. We would do whatever we had to do to realize the greatest monetary value from our land."

Fortunately, western ranchers have found allies among environmentalists. Hamilton heads a Wyoming Stock Growers Association effort called Open Dialogue for Open Spaces. The group includes ranchers and representatives of such groups as the Nature Conservancy and the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, the local affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. The group also has representatives of sportsmen organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited.

These alliances stem from recognition that there is common ground: they all want to save the West from unchecked development. "The environmentalists have begun to appreciate the livestock industry," Hamilton says. "They would rather have that than sprawl development." But there is still suspicion on both sides. "There's 25 or 30 years of bad blood and it's hard to undo that," says Stephen Thomas, Wyoming field representative for GYC. "I think we have to be patient."

The two sides acknowledge there are issues where they are unlikely to ever come to terms. For instance, environmentalists have successfully pushed for the reintroduction of wolves in parts of Idaho and Wyoming. In the past, ranchers spent decades of effort to eradicate wolves from the West. "There are some issues (wolves, for instance) that are so emotional we've kind of left them alone," says Thomas.

Gusto From Grazing The support of environmentalists has helped to deflate efforts to boot ranchers from federal land. But, science is also helping with studies that show land benefits from grazing and suffers when grazing is eliminated. "You don't get manure when you don't graze," says Ken Sanders, professor of range resources at the University of Idaho.

"And, the trampling of livestock breaks up dead plant matter and manure and works it back into the ground where it can decay. You actually have a higher percentage of organic matter in the top inch or two where land is grazed," Sanders says. Plus, he adds, organic matter helps water infiltrate the soil, adds nitrogen and curtails evaporation.

Conversely, when grazing stops, plant matter builds up, cutting the amount of sunlight that reaches the base of the plants. Eventually, the lack of sunlight causes grassland production to fall, Sanders says.

Critics are quick to blame grazing for changes in rangeland vegetation. But, a University of Idaho study suggests many other factors - including changes in rainfall, temperature variations and insect infestations - also have a pronounced impact on the land.

The study covered a site in Idaho's Raft River Valley which was left ungrazed for four decades. Each June, a photographic record was made of the range. It showed marked shifts from year to year in the amount of vegetation and the plant species found.

For instance, desirable squirrel tail grasses and shadscale, a low-lying shrub favored by cattle, flourished in some years. In other years, they died back or disappeared. The record was also marked by the periodic appearance of undesirable plants such as halogeton, a forb which can be poisonous to cattle not acclimated to it.

Growing Environmental Support The growing support from environmentalists comes none too soon. The threat of losing federal grazing privileges has already begun to undermine western ranches by reducing the value of federal grazing permits as collateral for loans.

"In general, I believe the value of a permit has fallen as a result of these changes in rangeland regulations and uncertainties about the future," says John Hay III, president of Rock Springs National Bank in Rock Springs, WY.

In fact, ranchers are likely never to be out of the woods as long as they depend on federal land to make a living. The government could decide to charge sharply higher grazing fees to raise cash for the federal treasury. Or, federal bureaucrats could create a nightmare of new grazing regulations.

"Grazing on federal land has been an issue as long as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has been around," says Julie Bousman, Joel Bousman's daughter and spokeswoman for Open Dialogue for Open Spaces. "As long as cattle eat grass, it's going to be an issue," she says.

Western ranchers who use federal lands are always at the mercy of Congress and the federal bureaucracy. As a result, they're constantly seeking legislative protection or regulatory relief from policies that could undermine their financial future.

Here are several areas of concern:

* The cost of using federal land. Operators want the government to establish an equitable formula to determine the cost of using federal land. This would prevent the government from setting fees so high that it would drive ranchers out of business.

* The interpretation of federal clean water laws. Ranchers fear they will be blamed for water pollution that occurs when rain or melting snow carries manure traces into streams.

"The fear is that regulators would move livestock from any streams that they consider to be impaired," says Joel Bousman, operator of a 300-head cow-calf operation in Boulder, WY.

* The right to continue operating while disputes with federal regulators are being settled. Today, for example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can order the removal of cattle from federal rangeland even before disputes between operators and the government are settled.

"Right now you can lose the right to graze immediately, rather than maintain the right to graze while decisions are appealed through the government," Bousman says. "By the time that runs its course, a permittee can be out of business."

Rangeland reform legislation is now working its way through Congress. The House has passed legislation that would implement an equitable grazing fee formula and would require the Forest Service and the BLM to coordinate their administration of federal grazing management programs.