February 17, 2003

Stay True to Rancher's Deal

Los Angeles Times

Life has always been something of a gamble for 76-year-old Howard Blair, who scratches a bare living out of a vast stretch of Mojave Desert, just as his father and grandfather did before him. Blairs have been cattle ranching in a corner of what is now the Mojave National Preserve since the 1880s, living off 1,000 acres of their own and more than 200,000 acres of grazing land leased from the federal government.

But Blair and his family face a special gamble now. Their 7IL Ranch will soon be the only working cattle ranch within the 1.6-million-acre preserve, and environmental groups are threatening to go to court to make them stop running their 400 cows, 25 bulls and 300 or so calves altogether.

The lawsuit's premise is that the cattle pose a threat to the endangered desert tortoise. Citing just that danger, a federal court in 2001 sharply curtailed grazing on land outside the preserve, which was established by Congress nine years ago and is managed by the National Park Service. The same litigants as in the earlier legal action -- the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- have signaled they plan a similar suit against the Blair operation, near the Providence Mountains 62 miles northeast of Needles.

The Desert Protection Act guaranteed the Blairs and others that they could continue to run their ranches in perpetuity. That was a special provision inserted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the law's major author. But, as The Times' Rone Tempest reported last week, the provision did not take into account the potential suits under the Endangered Species Act that have halted cattle operations at eight ranches just outside the preserve. Other ranchers have sold out at handsome prices. Presumably the Blairs could too if they acted now. But if the environmental groups are successful in their suit, the market value could drop to nothing.

Feinstein says she will do whatever she can to see that the Blairs can stay. And even Eldon Hughes of the Sierra Club says: "These are good people. There may be some middle ground." He's right. They are and there is. It's called common sense.

The lawsuit claims the cows step on the tortoises and crush their burrows. Blair says the cows stay clear of the reptiles, repelled by their smell. Either way, and despite the fact that the tortoises are endangered, they still roam vast stretches of California desert far out of range of the Blairs' paltry herd. The cattle pose a minuscule threat compared with that of the Department of Defense, which wants to expand its desert maneuvers in the Mojave and is seeking exemption from environmental laws.

To allow one family to run its ranch three more years or five generations more would not wipe out the tortoise or undermine environmentalists' important efforts to push destructive enterprises from fragile public lands. Nor would it preserve the cowboy way of life. But Congress and the president of the United States made a deal with the Blairs. They should stick to it.