The Office of Management and Budget, dodging one of the first bullets in the deficit-reduction battle, has urged President Reagan to freeze grazing fees on federal lands at current levels for one more year.
The action would toss a a sensitive political issue back to Congress, which tried and failed last year to alter the formula used to set fees for ranchers who pasture animals on federal rangeland.
In a memorandum to Reagan, OMB Director James C. Miller III said a one-year freeze "would maintain the pressure on Congress to seek a permanent solution to this problem."
For five years, the OMB has repeatedly urged an increase in federal grazing fees, arguing that current levels are not sufficient to cover program costs. According to Miller's memo, federal grazing fees are 80 percent lower than fees for comparable private land and revenue "covers only 35 percent of the federal costs of range management and improvement."
But the question of how much to raise the fees is clearly one that the OMB wants Congress to handle. While only 31,000 of the nation's 1.6 million livestock producers graze animals on public land, they are concentrated in western states represented by some of the administration's staunchest Republican supporters.
Some members of Congress, meanwhile, are no less eager to see the fee increase set by the OMB.
Miller's recommendation for an extension drew an immediate scolding from Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), who told the OMB director in a letter yesterday that the failure to recommend an increase in grazing fees "is totally inexplicable" in the face of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law.
"Because of the costs of this program, and the shadow of the Gramm-Rudman meat axe hanging over important federal programs, it seems to me that the Office of Management and Budget should do all it can to at least recover the costs of providing feed used by a small percentage of American livestock producers," wrote Synar, whose state contains little federal grazing land.
Some action is necessary to set fees for the 1986 grazing year, which begins March 1, because the complex formula used to set the fees since 1979 expired Jan. 1.
Twenty-eight senators and 40 House members have urged Reagan to extend the old formula for another decade, a move that Miller said would reduce the grazing fee by about 22 percent in 1986.