With a sweep of his arm, Eddie Alford takes in the lifeless tableau: a gaunt landscape of withered shrubs, desiccated cactuses and bare mounds where grasses once sprouted.

Congress, the public and ranchers are quick to blame drought for these conditions, which have forced the withdrawal of cattle herds from nearly 70 percent of public grazing land in the Southwest, including this starved stretch of the Tonto National Forest.

Alford, a U.S. Forest Service biologist, has a different view. He believes that decades-old policies by agencies such as his, as well as poor practices by ranchers themselves, have put public rangelands in this sorry shape.

"We have some [ranchers] who have stocked 10 times the cattle . . . allowed on their permit," he said. "Our focus has always been to support grazing at all costs. Now look. It doesn't take much of a drought to make this country look bad if it's been managed poorly. The southern part of the Tonto has never had a chance to recover since the overgrazing of the late 1800s."

Similar concerns have prompted normally circumspect career federal managers to speak out. Dave Stewart, rangeland director for the Forest Service in the Southwest, recently described conditions in New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest as "the most horrible example of grazing administration I've ever experienced."

Stewart said ranchers and land managers are responsible for the range conditions.

"You can't say the problems we are having today are all because of the drought. They are not. Certain management practices that were considered okay 10 years ago are not okay now," he said. Here in Arizona, in the national forest that officials say has been hardest hit by the drought, an unprecedented destocking is taking place over 3 million acres. Virtually all cattle have been removed from the forest and will be kept out for at least a year, or until Alford and others determine that there is enough grass growth to support cattle.

Ranchers, who lease 270 million acres of land in the West, chafe at accusations of overstocking and overgrazing. It is the prolonged drought, they say, that's to blame.

"The condition of the land is that it is in a drought -- it has nothing to do with management practices," said Charles "Doc" Lane, a fourth-generation rancher and director of natural resources for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association.

Politicians have responded to the situation by opening more public land to grazing and by expanding federal assistance programs to ranchers.

In May, the Bush administration approved grazing on tens of thousands of acres enrolled in the government's Conservation Reserve Program. The program sets aside agricultural land for use as wildlife habitat. It also includes watersheds in need of restoration in seven Western states. Congress is considering a legislative rider that would exempt ranchers who lease public land from conforming to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

In Arizona, ranchers received $2 million in drought aid from a state fund intended to purchase land for open space. Last month, Congress approved a $6 billion emergency aid package for drought-affected farmers and ranchers. And the Department of Agriculture recently announced a $752 million package to aid affected livestock producers.

Conservation groups are accusing ranchers of using the drought to gain public funds to solve a problem they themselves created. "In these intense periods of drought in the West, ranchers shift from overgrazing the public lands to mining the public trough," said John Horning, executive director of Forest Guardians, a New Mexico-based conservation group.

Government officials who supervise grazing on public land are beginning to agree. Even though it can be politically dangerous for them to say so, many are now conceding that unmanaged grazing might have permanently altered the landscape.

Managing cattle responsibly can be a labor-intensive, highly scientific endeavor. Environmentalists and government land stewards say that many in the current generation of ranchers who use public land can't or won't do the work required to protect the range.

Some ranchers simply don't agree with biologists who insist on time-consuming cattle management to preserve the range.

Cattle need to be moved from one pasture to another to avoid soil compaction. When soil is compacted, rainfall can't penetrate the dense topsoil and, instead of nourishing plants and grass, the water runs off into streambeds.

Also, cattle often chew desert grasses off at the nub, stressing the plant and slowing regrowth.

The ranchers who work this harsh land say they know best how to handle it. Helen and Billy Martin, both 77, have been ranching in this rugged part of central Arizona all their lives.

"The country is fine; this place looks the same as it did a hundred years ago," Helen Martin said. "There used to be 2,500 head of cattle on this land. Now there's all but none. Why? We aren't going to put them out there if they are going to starve. How dumb do they think we are?"

This year, the Martins had 300 head of cattle that they tended on horseback, riding the 600 acres they lease in the national forest. They were recently down to 50 cows, which had to be off the land by the end of September.

It's a story being played out around the region, where land managers predict that soon no private ranchers will be running cattle on public land.

"We can't continue on," Stewart said. "We have to destock these ranches. There's virtually no forage to be grazed. It paints a pretty bleak picture for the future."

Cattle graze last month in Arizona's Tonto National Forest. Ranchers blame the poor conditions on drought, but some officials say government policies are at fault.