TOM BEARDEN: It's 4 a.m. in southeastern Oregon, a typical morning for the hands at the O'Keeffe Ranch, saddling their horses and getting their marching orders to drive cattle.
JOHN O'KEEFFE: And the other guy can take them cattle from the Hanolan Cabin on down the road and there'll be cattle to pick up at that water hole in the middle of the flat.
TOM BEARDEN: Like thousands of western cattlemen, John O'Keeffe pays grazing fees to the government for his 1,100 head of cattle to feed on more than 70,000 acres of publicly owned federal land. It's nothing new. Cattlemen have been raising beef on public lands for nearly two centuries.
But now the practice is at the center of a controversy over how the Bureau of Land Management supervises the 163 million acres under its control. Conservation biologist David Dobkin says cattle have severely damaged much of that land.
DAVID DOBKIN: The topsoil is gone. The topsoil was lost decades ago, through the action of -- of livestock grazing, through the action, principally, of large numbers of hoofed animals walking across very fragile soils and destroying the protective layer, the protective surface.
TOM BEARDEN: But O'Keeffe insists he's a good steward of the land, that his cattle do no harm to open range.
JOHN O'KEEFFE: You know, my family's been here since the early 1900s and we're proud of the condition that these lands are in and we intend to stay there. You know, the third generation's out here today, some of them helping gather this allotment and make a pasture change, and we hope to pass it on to them and we're real proud of the condition that this is in.
TOM BEARDEN: Ten years ago, under the Clinton administration, grazing rules were tightened, some say tilted towards environmentalists. Ranchers were sometimes only allowed weeks to move cattle out when the BLM declared a grazing area damaged.
The Bush administration is relaxing some of those rules. They are scheduled to go into effect next month. Bill Marlett, who runs the Oregon Natural Desert Association, an environmental group, thinks it's a step in the wrong direction.
BILL MARLETT: Now with the Bush administration in place, the tables have kind of turned, if you will, and we've taking from what I would say two steps forward, now we're taking a step backwards in terms of restoring the damage to our public lands that have been caused by over 100 years of grazing by domestic livestock.
TOM BEARDEN: BLM officials declined the NewsHour's invitation for an on-camera interview, but the agency has publicly claimed the new rules would "help facilitate a better working relationship with ranchers and improve rangeland conservation." One of the most contentious changes would increase the amount of time ranchers have to react when BLM says land has been damaged.
The BLM must now monitor any damaged land for up to 24 months instead of demanding immediate action. And if the BLM forces ranchers to decrease the number of cattle on the ranges by more than 10 percent because of problems, ranchers will have five years to phase in those changes. However, the BLM included an emergency provision that if the land is severely damaged, they can force the rancher to take action immediately.
The BLM issued an environmental impact statement along with the new rules. It concluded the new regulations would help improve wildlife habitat, water quality and overall health of public rangelands. But two former BLM scientists who worked on that report for some two years, say that's not what they wrote.
BILL BROOKES: They don't want to know the truth. They don't want to know the science. They want to do what they want to do and where they want to do it.
TOM BEARDEN: Erick Campbell, a conservation biologist, and Bill Brookes, a hydrologist, both have more than 30 years of experience with the BLM. They say they submitted reports asserting the changes would hurt the land, wildlife and water quality. Now retired, Campbell and Brooks say their comments were eliminated from the final environmental impact statement.
ERICK CAMPBELL: I mean they took out the peer reviewed literature because it did show that livestock grazing has been bad to arid western rangelands. But they also took out, for instance, our opinions under the environmental consequences, which is where professional experience comes in. And my overall opinion for all of the changes was that it was going to have a slow, long-term, adverse impact on wildlife resources. And they turned around, they turned that around 180 degrees to where it was going to be beneficial to wildlife.
BILL BROOKES: And it's really interesting to see how the bureau is trying to get away from the science and do what it wants to do to make life easier for the rancher at the expense of the American public.
TOM BEARDEN: In response, the BLM issued a statement, telling the NewsHour that Campbell and Brookes' conclusions were, "based on personal opinion and unsubstantiated assertions rather than sound environmental analysis."
ERICK CAMPBELL: They are basically giving the cattle industry everything they want. And they do not want to portray the livestock grazing on the public lands, they do not want the public to know, that the livestock grazing on the public lands today is adverse and it's bad and it's across the range.
TOM BEARDEN: Environmentalist Marlett is particularly upset by the length of time, five years, that the new rules give a rancher to correct a problem.
BILL MARLETT: It's important that when the agency sees a problem, that they be able to make the corrections immediately so that we don't postpone the inevitable. I mean, by way of example, you know, if someone comes into the emergency room, you know, and they've had a heart attack, you know, the doctor doesn't say, "Well, we'll think about it over the next five years and maybe we'll fix it then."
TOM BEARDEN: But O'Keeffe says it takes time to really evaluate impact on the land. He says the old rules often forced ranchers to move so quickly that their financial stability was affected.
JOHN O'KEEFFE: Of course, you've got to have some lead time to make decisions and to make arrangements for where your cattle are going to be. And that was creating a situation where there can be some real problems and people would have to liquidate cattle and get in a real financial bind. While if you got a little time to make those arrangements, those things, it's a lot more likely you can do them without creating some hardship.
TOM BEARDEN: Oregon State University professor William Krueger has studied grazing issues for 30 years himself, and he directly contradicts the BLM scientists.
Is it possible to graze cattle in the arid grasslands of this state and do so without hurting the ecosystem?
WILLIAM KRUEGER: Absolutely. We've been doing that for, you know, a couple hundred years in this state. And as time goes on, people are learning more and more how to do it better and there's lots of examples and experience of long-term sustainable use of these rangelands for livestock production.
TOM BEARDEN: One of the key points of dispute is how grazing affects streams and creeks, so-called riparian areas. Environmentalists say they're important because they provide habitat for many species of wildlife, and have long asserted that cattle virtually destroy such ecosystems. But the BLM says the new rules will improve riparian habitats. Dobkin is not sure how.
DAVID DOBKIN: I have looked through the regs. I'm not a policy person on this per se, but I cannot see anything in the grazing regulations that could possibly produce that kind of an outcome.
TOM BEARDEN: Dobkin says allowing cattle to graze in a damaged ecosystem can affect a stream like this one -- steep banks, no trees and foul water. In contrast, he took us to an area where cattle have not been allowed to graze for more than a decade.
DAVID DOBKIN: This is what a desert stream ecosystem should look like. I know from my experience of working as an ecologist in Western landscapes for the last 30 years or more now that riparian systems certainly have not gotten better, have continued to deteriorate for the most part and that this is an extraordinary exception, an example of where things should go.
TOM BEARDEN: Krueger says he's studied riparian areas, too, and believes such areas can prosper under the new regulatory environment.
WILLIAM KRUEGER: In terms of the fish, there's, there's no real effect on the fish. At the same time we're increasing our average calf weights by 25 to 40 pounds in those riparian zones.
So we're getting a little better production for the agriculture enterprise and no negative changes towards the wildlife and environmental benefits in the area. So it's kind of a good. The kind of range management situation you're looking for is to figure out a way to integrate all these multiple uses together and make it work.
TOM BEARDEN: Bottom line, it can be well managed.
WILLIAM KRUEGER: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
TOM BEARDEN: Complicating the argument is the fact that there are no overall baseline studies to compare changes to the public lands against; only anecdotal reports on small parcels of land. Despite the differing scientific conclusions, one environmental group has already filed a lawsuit to stop the new grazing rules from going into effect next month.
JIM LEHRER: Yesterday the BLM said it will soon publish a supplement to its environmental impact statement, "to go the extra mile to ensure the agency has fully considered all views" on the proposed changes.