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In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court handed Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt a victory in his dispute with ranchers over his rules for grazing on federal lands. The decision, which upheld regulations introduced by Babbitt in 1995, disappointed Western ranchers and cattlemen who had come to view the new regulations as a threat to their livelihood. At issue were three regulations implemented by Babbitt regarding grazing rights to public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. The first regulation changed the definition of “grazing preference” from one based upon the total number of livestock a rancher had grazing on a particular federal land to one which permits ranchers to have their cattle graze only if such activity conforms to the government’s applicable land use plan for its property. The ranchers claimed Babbitt violated the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which requires him to “adequately safeguard” existing grazing rights. Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer stated that Babbitt’s regulations were permissible because the Taylor Act gave broad discretion to the Secretary of the Interior to administer the grazing program. The statute also stated specifically that the privilege of grazing granted to ranchers did not afford the ranchers any right, title, or interest in the lands. Two other regulations, one that eliminated the requirement that holders of grazing permits be engaged in livestock business and one that gave the government title to any improvements made by the ranchers to the public land, were similarly upheld by the court. “We set out at the beginning of this Administration to put in place a reform package that would modernize grazing regulations which hadn’t significantly changed sine enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934,” Babbitt said in a press release concerning the court’s ruling. “We will continue our efforts working with ranchers and other friends of the public lands to implement these reforms.” For the more than 20,000 livestock owners who possess permits to graze on the public lands, however, the court’s decision was not welcome news. Many ranchers rely on the value of the their permit as collateral when securing loans from lending institutions. Because of the elimination of any property rights through grazing permits, several ranchers are concerned the court’s decision may lead to difficulties obtaining loans in the future. Julie Quick of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, one of the parties who brought the case against the Department of the Interior, stated that she was “disappointed” with the ruling. She is encouraged, however, that the case forced the government to explain Babbitt’s regulations. “Through the lawsuit the Department of the Interior was forced to clarify the regulations,” Quick said. “The opinion actually states that all elements of preference, including grazing privileges, will be maintained. Our job now is to make sure that Secretary Babbitt follows through on what he told the court.”

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