WASHINGTON -- Returning to an issue set aside when it appeared to threaten the budget negotiations, the Clinton administration announced plans yesterday to more than double grazing fees for ranchers who use federal land as the first step toward reshaping Western land policy.
Environmentalists heralded the action and predicted that it would reduce grazing on public land that they say harms wildlife, forests and streams.
Western Republicans condemned it as a betrayal, while Democratic senators from the West said the measures were less severe than the proposals President Clinton had originally made in his budget, and which they had persuaded him to drop.
Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt, who announced the fee increases and a number of new controls over water rights and the use of public land, said more changes would be announced next month. He and other administration officials described the move as part of a wide-ranging effort to reverse a century of federal policy that promoted development in the West with government subsidies.
The new land management policy, administration officials predict, will mean that miners will begin paying royalties for mining gold and other metals, timber companies will no longer log national forests at below-market prices, and farmers will begin to pay surcharges to irrigate federal land.
"It's about our commitment and our responsibility to live more lightly on the land," Mr. Babbitt said. "It's about asserting our American heritage, the landscape, the resources and the culture that constitutes the American West."
Administration officials said the grazing fee change, which would apply to owners of livestock that graze on 280 million acres of public range, should generate on average an extra $20 million a year for the Treasury as it is phased in by 1996 -- about $4 million less than the administration had originally proposed.
Under the administration's new policy, monthly grazing fees will rise from the current $1.86 for each animal unit -- defined as a cow and calf or five sheep -- to $4.28 in three years. The value of such rights, if enjoyed on private land, is estimated at from $5 to $15, depending on the land.
The timing of the announcement appeared designed to help Mr. Clinton shed the impression that he had put aside his environmental principles to buy votes for his deficit-reduction plan, which Congress passed by the thinnest margins last week.
In February, several Western senators had threatened to withhold their votes for the Clinton economic plan unless the administration took certain grazing and mining fee provisions out of the legislation.
Mr. Clinton acceded to their request, and was widely criticized for buckling under, even though he said then that he would return to the issue with an administrative order.
Some Republicans in Congress sharply criticized yesterday's decision as a betrayal of ranchers. "This proposal is misguided and shows the lack of knowledge Secretary Babbitt and his extremist crowd have about current range land conditions," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. "Ranchers are the best stewards of the land."
But the reaction of Democratic senators from the West was far milder; some said they had expected the decision and did not feel that Mr. Clinton had gone back on his word.
Administration officials said the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the passage of the budget, but was timed to take place before Mr. Babbitt left for a three-week trip to Alaska.