A new road for the public lands

 

Note: this front-page essay introduces this issue's feature story.

In early October, President Clinton visited the Washington and Jefferson National Forest. From that green pulpit, he asked us to tell him how to manage 40 million to 60 million acres of roadless national forest land: Do we want the clean water they produce, the wildlife they shelter, the solitude they provide? Or are wood fiber and motorized recreation more important?

The Bill Clinton who went to Virginia to ask those questions is far more sophisticated about the West than the man who proclaimed the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in 1996 from the Grand Canyon. That was a brutal political act, even if Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt later tempered it by involving southern Utahns in planning the monument.

But as you will see here and in the next issue of High Country News, Clinton and Babbitt have learned to implement the national will with more finesse.

Their strategy is as risky as it is brilliant. It is risky because Westerners may see the attempt to impose national values on public lands as cause for yet another sagebrush rebellion. Western senators may stage a hunger strike and launch an armada of congressional riders.

It is brilliant because it invites Westerners to take part in the planning, rather than going over their heads, as in Utah. At the center of this effort is land which some Westerners have been allowed to treat as theirs for a century or more. That is no longer possible. People with a different set of values are moving to the West in large numbers, and those who don't move here, vacation here. That familiarity coupled with the work of environmental groups, has moved the nation to impose its will on the region's public lands.

Clinton and Babbitt are the instruments of that will. In the face of it, the West can continue to proclaim its sovereignty and carry on with a doomed rearguard action. Or it can strengthen its sovereignty by adhering to the national desire to protect the land while implementing that protection in a Western way.

The natural leaders of such an effort are the thus-far-silent Western governors, whose Enlibra policy pledges an acceptance of national values when it comes to public lands and air and water quality (HCN, 10/26/98). But Enlibra, the "shared environmental doctrine" of the 17 members of the Western Governors' Association, also asks for the opportunity to implement those national values in a regional or local way. Clinton's initiative now presents the governors with a chance to fill the vacuum created by the failure of Western senators to accept the national will on forest protection, hard-rock mining and the deconstruction of dams.

Some Westerners will hold fast, hoping that President George W. Bush will save them from the nation. But if the Newt Gingrich Congress couldn't save the West from wolves and the Endangered Species Act, it is unlikely that a Bush presidency can save it from the protection of national forests and BLM lands. If elected, he will most likely be a centrist like his dad, who stopped underground nuclear testing, signed into law a bill reforming the operation of California's Central Valley Project, and killed Denver's proposed dam at Two Forks.

The nation is moving, and whoever is elected president will want to get out in front of that movement. The West will retain its sovereignty only if it exercises it on the public lands in ways consistent with the national will. Anything else consigns us to the same backward status as the South in the decades after the Civil War, before that region was freed by the civil rights movement.

That seems to be the big picture. The details, of course, are far more complex, and will take decades to work through.

In this issue, on page 8, Todd Wilkinson writes about the national push to close forest roads and protect roadless areas, which is running head-on into the very well organized off-road-vehicle riders and their timber industry allies.

In our Nov. 22 issue, you will read about Bruce Babbitt's travels to Oregon's Steens Mountain, to the Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon, to the Missouri Breaks, and to other places. He brings the same message to the people in each place: These are valuable federal lands. We want you to work with environmentalists to come up with a plan to protect them. Then we will go together to the Congress to put your plan into law. If you don't do that, we will protect the land by proclamation, just as we did at the Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah.