Cowboys fight for a home on the range: US ranchers fear rising grazing fees will force them to the towns, writes David Usborne in Fort Bridger

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AT PETE'S AND PATTY'S, one of only two bars in this old frontier town in south-western Wyoming, famous for its rowdiness and occasional fights, a small group of ranchers has gathered for a supper of steak and beer. There is no trouble tonight and when the sheriff strides in, tall and with a drooping moustache, it is only to inquire about a pick-up truck blocking the road.

The talk, at first, is about the melting of the snows and the well-being of cattle and sheep. Quickly, though, it turns to a topic that makes their placid eyes burn with anger and anxiety - plans in Washington to increase dramatically the fees the ranchers pay to graze their animals on federal lands.

The backdrop for countless westerns, and cigarette commercials, these rugged rangelands, spanning 280 million acres in 11 states, are the lifeblood of these men and their families. Though they all have some acreage of deeded property, often homesteads handed down from their forefathers, their animals mostly roam public lands for extra grazing.

It is a landscape, however, that may be in trouble. Almost two thirds of the western rangeland, according to a recent government report, is in poor condition after years of agricultural use. 'The land has been overwhelmed and overgrazed since settlement in the last century,' says Nancy Green of the Wilderness Society, a leading environmental group. 'It simply cannot stand it and something has to be done.' The extreme view is that the ranchers should be made to leave the ranges entirely and their animals moved to the prairies.

The administration is hardly likely to attempt so drastic a step. But it has decided that all users of public lands in the west - ranchers, loggers and miners - are being subsidised by artificially low fees that derive from laws going back to the days of Wild Bill Hickok and designed to encourage settlement. 'It's a brand-new era of land management,' Bruce Babbit, the Interior Secretary, declared recently, adding that the higher fees would 'give incentives for good management of the land'. The additional dollars 1bn ( pounds 662m) the new charges would generate would partly be paid back into improving the rangelands and mending ecological damage, Mr Babbit promises.

The consensus at Pete's and Patty's is that an increase in fees alone would cripple ranches and possibly drive ranchers off the land. Implicit is a warning that the cowboy culture, symbolic of the conquest of the west and preserved by only 30,000 ranchers remaining on the rangelands, could simply be wiped out. Today the grazing fee they pay is dollars 1.87 for one cow and her calf a month. They fear it could go up to anything between dollars 4 and dollars 8. Although the White House recently agreed to drop the increased fees from its 1994 budget, it promises to pursue them through legislation.

Carl Larson, whose grandfather came from Norway in 1877, herds 6,500 sheep over an area extending from the Bridger Valley high into the Uinta mountains, 30 miles (48km) south. Both his sons work with him and, until now, he had taken it for granted that his first grandson, not yet two years old, would be herding in the next century as well. Now he believes Washington wants simply to evict him. 'The bottom line is that they want us off. They want to send us back to the urban areas. The people back east want this as the playground of the US,' he says.

His neighbour is Richard Hamilton, whose grandfather came to the valley at the end of the last century to trade with federal forces in the fort that gave Fort Bridger its name. He is angered by the suggestion that ranchers abuse the rangeland. 'As far as managing the ecosystem properly, I hope I'm doing that now. I can't be a viable operator without making sure my land is sound. What would I do if this was to become a dustbowl?'

Several hours drive east of Fort Bridger, the Dickinson family, third and fourth generation ranchers, herd cattle over an area of 500,000 acres along the Green River, mostly in Colorado but straddling Wyoming and Utah. Most is federal land for which the Dickinsons hold precious grazing permits. 'We're busting our butts out here and now we're being crucified by folk who have no understanding but who have access to microphones and newspapers', says Wright Dickinson.

Most of these ranchers identify with the conclusion reached by Bob Wolverton, a columnist for the Fort Bridger Pioneer. Of the environmentalists and politicians he writes: 'In saving us from ourselves, they will change the face of the land to suit their purposes. We'll see rotting ranch houses, dust-covered lumber mills and rusting well-heads. And as we walk past these relics, we'll see the winners of the latest conquest sipping on Perrier, munching granola and admiring their purple-and-blue and teal- green Gore-Tex boots and latest high- fashion backpacks.'

(Photograph and map omitted)