Expectations are running high among those in agriculture that our new Administration will help ease environmental and regulatory pressures. Indeed, President Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt are seeking to add to their environmental legacy during these transition days with new national monument protection for five areas of federal land. Two of the five proposed monument designations are in areas where federal grazing could be affected.

Two of the proposed national monuments would be on lands currently managed by the federal government in Montana and California. "These natural landscapes are unique, historic American treasures," says Secretary Babbitt. "They need more care and protection than we are giving them now, so I am asking the President to designate them as national monuments."

Ranchers and other users of those lands in Montana and California, however, are suggesting that Babbitt's recommendations are thinly disguised final attempts by the Clinton Administration to remove as much livestock grazing as possible from federal lands.

The two proposed areas targeted for national monument status that could impact livestock grazing are: The Upper Missouri River Breaks, approximately 377,346 acres in central Montana which covers 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River, the adjacent Breaks country, and portions of Arrow Creek, Antelope Creek and the Judith River; Carrizo Plain - approximately 204,107 acres of federal land in central California near the southwest edge of the San Joaquin Valley.

While the latest proposals haven't yet been accepted by President Clinton, he did sign several other national monument proposals during December. Those areas will be added to the Bureau of Land Management's National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), which now includes 10 national monuments, 12 national conservation areas and 140 wilderness areas.

Prior to Christmas, President Clinton signed legislations creating the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, approximately 120 miles of trails on nearly 1.2 million areas of public lands in northwestern Nevada. He also signed legislation creating Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, 42,000 acres of scenic landscape that includes desert grasslands and rolling oak-studded hills.

But while many western ranchers are concerned about the potential losses of grazing on federal lands, the new national monuments will have minimal impact on the production of beef. And while it is unlikely that President-elect Bush's appointee for Secretary of the Interior would be as aggressive in adding to the national monument collection, there's little guarantee that environmental and regulatory pressures would diminish.

Much more important to the beef industry, and to agriculture in general, is the continuing fragmentation of land in America. The booming economy during the 1990s spawned much uncontrolled development. Western states are experiencing a flood of new settlers; refugees from overpopulated, crime-ridden major cities. The first ripples were seen when a handful of the rich and famous purchased large ranches in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and other mountain states. A wave of upper-middle class Americans followed seeking the new American dream: a 35-acre ranchette with room to ride a horse or an ATV, and the occasional opportunity to actually shift a sport-utility vehicle (SUV) into four-wheel-drive.

But western ranchers aren't alone in the struggle with development. Growth around Atlanta, for instance, consumes 500 acres of fields and farmland each week. Many are calling the area the fastest spreading human development in history. As proof, they point to the fact that the Atlanta metro area is now over 110 miles across, up from 65 miles in 1990. Kansas City represents another frightening example: between 1990 and 1996 the city spread 70 percent, while its population, now about 1.9 million, grew just 5 percent.

When ranching landscape is converted to development, serious social, ecological and economic problems result. From the rancher's perspective, generations of a family's work is lost. Society loses the wide open spaces that characterize the West. At the local level, the agricultural-based economy is less viable.

Certainly the impact of rural sprawl is a much greater concern to the livestock industry than the designation of national monuments and wilderness areas. And the economy will have a much greater impact on the continuation of rural sprawl than any new Interior Secretary. The growing wealth of middle-class America, driven by a booming stock market, enables more people to afford their view of the American dream.

Another impact of rural sprawl is the escalation of land prices. Farmers and ranchers must now compete with new bidders for productive agricultural lands. That drives the cost of production higher, or worse, keeps young people out of production agriculture.

Given the fact that few in agriculture have joined in America's prosperity over the past decade, maybe a slow-down in the general economy wouldn't be such a bad prospect. It might help level the playing field between those living on agricultural earnings and those living on dot.com type earnings.