Surely this was the time to reform grazing and mining on public lands, designate millions of acres of new wilderness, toughen laws protecting water and wildlife.
But the brief window of opportunity has slammed shut, and environmentalists are gingerly nursing bruised knuckles with hardly a significant victory to speak of. Grazing reform limps along an administrative path and Congress has backed down again on wilderness and revision of the century-old mining law.
Even the California Desert Protection Act, which was seen as a sure thing, passed only in the waning moments of the session, following an attempted Republican filibuster.
"The atmosphere for environmental issues in Congress is as bad as I've ever seen it," says Jim Lyon, Washington director of the Mineral Policy Center. "With the exception of the California Desert Protection Act, we're in a defensive mode. At least under Reagan, the Democrats held together."
There may be no need to pine for the Reagan years, when things looked so bad that environmental groups were able to rally widespread support and at least mount successful holding actions. An emboldened wise-use/property rights/Christian Coalition movement, bolstered by an electorate sick of politics and angry with regulation, has raised candidates and initiatives that could change government at all levels Nov. 8.
Republicans are positioned to harvest the alienation, while many of the Democrats swept into office two years ago are trying to distance themselves from the Clinton administration.
Nowhere is the backlash against government-as-usual more obvious than in the 10 mountain and desert states covered by High Country News, and no target is feeling it more than Washington state's Tom Foley, often cast as the West's most prominent - and to some environmentalists, traitorous - Democrat.
In a September open primary, the House speaker won just 35 percent of the vote while three Republican contenders split the remaining 65 percent. Foley's opponent in November, Spokane attorney George Nethercutt, is the happy recipient of a flood of Republican PAC money from around the country, and recent polls put him ahead by as much as 20 points.
In Arizona, Republican candidates for governor and both U.S. House and Senate seats are using environmentalists and their causes as whipping boys. Gov. Fife Symington, R, who once proclaimed himself an environmentalist, recently told the American Mining Congress that the Mexican spotted owl shouldn't get federal protection because the owl is smart enough to survive on its own.
"There isn't one spotted owl on earth that's worth losing a job over," he said.
Symington, up against perennial Democratic outsider Eddie Basha, is backing Proposition 300, a ballot initiative that claims to protect Fifth Amendment property rights. The proposition requires the state government to produce lengthy and costly property-rights compact statements before issuing new regulations; some environmentalists say the vote on it will indicate just how far the wise-use movement has come.
In Arizona's largely rural 6th Congressional District, freshman Rep. Karan English, a Democrat, is campaigning as if she were an independent candidate, running away from Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as if they were the plague.
Her list-of-achievement sheet on natural resources touts her opposition to the administration's rangeland reform proposal, as well as her efforts to free federal timber for logging and relieve copper mining companies from some reclamation requirements - even though support from environmentalists enabled her election two years ago. Her opponent this time is J.D. Hayworth, a popular Phoenix sportscaster who says the Endangered Species Act goes too far.
In neighboring New Mexico, Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman is fighting a challenge from rancher, oil company owner and banker Colin McMillan, whose fiery rhetoric leaps straight from the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s.
"This campaign is about the attack on the Western way of life. Let's get rid of the killer Bs - Bingaman, Babbitt and President Bill," he recently told party faithful.
"Two years ago our job was to distinguish between two candidates who claimed to be environmentalists," says Rob Smith, Southwest regional director for the Sierra Club. "But the environment isn't a litmus test anymore. Candidates are running openly against the environment. Anti-environmentalism is being couched in terms of anti-tax, anti-government, anti-regulation. It's an attempt to cast the environmental movement as representative of all the things people don't like."
Rancher Jack Metzger, former federal lands director for the National Cattleman's Association, says the election will be payback time for environmentalism run amok.
"People are saying "we can't live with the sky is falling all the time," " says Metzger. "The environmental movement has stubbed its toe."
Ironically, environmentalists sick of status quo politics are making their moves in two states.
In New Mexico, the Green Party has placed a full slate of candidates on the ballot. Green gubernatorial candidate Roberto Mondragon, a long-time New Mexico politico who once served as lieutenant governor under current governor Bruce King, D, is running strongly in the largely Hispanic northern parts of the state, including Santa Fe.
In Montana, an environmental activist and artist, Steve Kelly, is making a bid for the state's lone House seat. Running as an independent candidate, Kelly favors the creation of a five-state wilderness bill. Democratic incumbent Pat Williams has tried unsuccessfully for years to pass a smaller, Montana-only bill.
Some environmentalists and Democratic leaders label both Kelly and the Green Party as spoilers who can't win but who could tilt the balance toward right-leaning Republicans.
In Montana, the Republican congressional candidate is Cy Jamison, who directed the Bureau of Land Management during the George Bush years. In the New Mexico governor's race, the Republican is Gary Johnson, a political newcomer aligned with People for the West, which backs unregulated mining, logging and grazing on public lands.
But the long-shot challenges might better be seen as a protest against a two-party system mired in gridlock. "I'm providing Montana voters a choice for the first time in 54 years," says Kelly. "Nobody is satisfied with the job Congress is doing. Maybe an outsider can do it."
Democrats will likely give ground in both the House and Senate in November, and in the West, Democratic incumbents are vulnerable to Republican challengers in a dozen races.
In the state of Washington, a virtual Democratic sweep in 1992 gave Democrats eight of the state's nine House seats. Republicans predict they will gain a majority of the seats this year.
But nothing in politics is a sure thing. Foley could stage a last-minute comeback and win. And a slate of more moderate candidates representing the changing demographics of the West could prevail throughout the region. Certainly, such candidates have emerged, especially in the high-growth states of Colorado, Montana and Arizona, and new coalitions have formed in several states to counter the organizing of the right wing.
Here's a look at some of the region's key races.
NEVADA: The governor's race, between Democratic incumbent Bob Miller and Republican challenger Jim Gibbons (a state legislator from Reno) has become a race of extremes. Gibbons has aligned himself with the newly formed Nevada Freedom Coalition, composed of anti-tax, anti-gay, pro-gun, and anti-environmental organizations. The coalition supports candidates at all levels of government, from school boards to the U.S. Senate, pushing an agenda that includes the return of all federal lands to Nevada.
Environmentalists say Miller has been no friend when it comes to grazing and mining reform, but he has fought for regulation of toxic pollution. "Compared to Miller, Gibbons would be a real disaster," says Sierra Club activist Marjory Sill.
Countering the "freedom fighters' at the state legislative level is the Nevada Progressive Coalition, which formed last May and includes environmentalists, women's groups and labor unions. State director Bob Fulkerson says it hopes to elect candidates that better reflect the booming state's new ethnic diversity.
"Nevada's Hispanic population grew by 130 percent between 1980 and 1990," says Fulkerson. "It's a huge new political force."
MONTANA: No fan of environmentalists, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns is sweating a tight race against Democrat Jack Mudd, an attorney and former dean of the University of Montana's law school.
Burns is a vocal opponent of efforts to reform grazing and mining on public lands. He introduced a wilderness bill written by the timber industry, which killed the chances of a more moderate bill introduced by Rep. Pat Williams. This could hurt Burns, says Sierra Club northern plains director Larry Mehlhaff, because Burns campaigned in 1988 saying he would solve the wilderness issue.
A Great Falls Tribune poll in September showed Burns with a slim lead of 46 percent to Mudd's 40 percent, with Mudd attracting young and college-educated voters.
The House race between Williams, Republican Cy Jamison and independent candidate Steve Kelly has divided conservationists. Some fear if Kelly wins just 5 or 10 percent of the vote, he will siphon support from Williams, who has a decent environmental record, and help Jamison.
"It would be a shame if Kelly defeated Williams and elected a James Watt clone," says Sierra Club political director Dan Weiss.
Kelly admits he is frustrated with the Montana wilderness logjam and blames Williams for some of it. But he says his candidacy represents a much broader dissatisfaction with government and money's role in politics.
"Environmentalists were tricked" into thinking that the election of Clinton and the 103rd Congress would help them with their agenda, he says. "And these are the same ones calling me a spoiler."
WYOMING: Malcolm Wallop is stepping down from the U.S. Senate and the big question is: Will the conservative, anti-environmental Republican be replaced by someone much like him - Rep. Craig Thomas - or by the more moderate Democrat Mike Sullivan, who is giving up the governor's seat to run?
Though no environmental champion, Sullivan has the support of many activists in the state who say he is an intelligent consensus builder. Thomas has tried to paint Sullivan as a close friend of the Clinton administration and one of those waging "War on the West," criticizing him for working on a federal grazing reform model for Wyoming.
But Sullivan has won kudos from some ranchers for his efforts to bring environmentalists and agricultural interests to the table. He has lashed back at Thomas and Wallop for being critical bystanders.
"Talk of genocide, divide and conquer, not only contributes nothing to the debate, but acts as kind of a bugle call for ... resentment and hatred," he recently told the Casper Star-Tribune. "I wonder when people talk like that if they are trying to destroy all possibilities of constructive resolution of these issues."
Wyoming voters have clear choices in two other statewide races. State legislator Barbara Cubin, R, who is trying to win Thomas' vacated seat, has the support of the wise-use movement and the Christian Coalition.
"She's worse on "War on the West" than Craig Thomas, if you can believe it," says the Sierra Club's Mehlhaff.
Cubin's Democratic opponent, attorney Bob Shuster, has done pro bono work to protect wilderness areas in Teton County from oil and gas development.
The Wyoming governor's race pits popular Secretary of State Kathy Karpan, D, against Jim Geringer, a state legislator who has pushed takings legislation. Karpan has worked to slow the sale of state trust lands and opposes the proposed Noranda gold mine near Yellowstone. She recently charged Republican leaders with trying to scare her out of the race by threatening to accuse her of being a lesbian - a charge she says is baseless and irrelevant. Geringer claimed in the Casper Star-Tribune that sexual preference is not an issue, but "to some people that will make a difference ..."
Wyomingites also will vote on a ballot initiative that would give counties the ability to allow gambling if a majority of their residents approve.
COLORADO: The House of Representatives race for Colorado's 3rd District, which covers the western half of the state, is a showdown between the Old West, in Rep. Scott McInnis, R, and the New West, represented by state legislator Linda Powers.
Powers, a former councilwoman from the ski town of Crested Butte, has pushed hard at the state level for new subdivision rules to slow the effects of growth on agricultural lands. McInnis has gone to bat for developers and the traditional extractive industries using the public lands.
"I think McInnis' support is a mile wide and an inch deep," says Carmi McLean, executive director of the Denver-based Clean Water Action. "Our polling shows that the wise-use/takings people are out of step. Most people like zoning and regulation because it will protect their property rights." McInnis, however, has enjoyed strong support in previous elections.
In the governor's race, incumbent Roy Romer is running for a third term against Republican oilman Bruce Benson. Romer, who has been campaigning on the issue of "smart growth," has a big lead over Benson, who has suffered from "character" problems relating to two arrests for drunken driving in the early 1980s and a messy divorce. Romer has aligned himself strongly with Babbitt's grazing reform.
A James Watt protégée, state Attorney General Gale Norton, faces a challenge by Democrat Dick Freese, a lawyer who formed the Rocky Mountain Center on the Environment in the 1960s. Norton, who worked in Watt's Interior Department and as counsel for the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, supported takings legislation and has shied away from prosecuting corporate polluters, environmentalists say.
IDAHO: Attorney General Larry EchoHawk, a Democrat, leads the race for the governor's seat vacated by Cecil Andrus. EchoHawk, who is both a Mormon and a Pawnee, has strong appeal among Republican moderates and Mormons and is expected to defeat Republican Phil Batt.
Environmentalists say EchoHawk will not be the feisty fighter Andrus has been on the salmon issue. But they say the lawyer who brought the state's successful lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service has the right philosophy and would hire good people to keep pushing for fundamental changes in the Columbia River hydro system.
As for Gov. Andrus' pet project to expand the bombing range in the Oregon desert, "EchoHawk will let it die," predicts John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League.
Rep. Larry LaRocco, D, faces a colorful challenge from arch-conservative Helen Chenoweth in the state's 1st District. Although LaRocco has been no friend of environmentalists - he has called for salvage logging and recently fought to allow hunters in areas proposed as a national park in the California Desert - the "War-on-the-West" spouting Chenoweth would be a disaster, says McCarthy.
Attending a late-summer Sockeye Festival and Feed rally in Stanley, Chenoweth told a crowd of farmers, "It's the Anglo-Saxon male that's endangered today. The courts ... are elevating the rights of animals and plants to the level of humans."
NEW MEXICO: Gauging the effects of the Green Party dominates headlines in this state. Democratic leaders are particularly concerned that gubernatorial Green candidate Roberto Mondragon will hurt the chances of Bruce King, a Democrat seeking his fourth term. Polls show Republican newcomer Gary Johnson is mounting a strong challenge.
Environmentalists have split camp. Saying Mondragon is unelectable, the statewide Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed King, a rancher with a weak environmental record. But the endorsement has spawned an uprising within the chapter. Activists Susan Schock and Pat Wolff, who is also the Green Party candidate for state land commissioner, won seats on the chapter's executive committee with backing from those who opposed the King endorsement.
The state's other environmental PAC, the New Mexico Conservation Voters Alliance, has not endorsed anyone for governor. Its literature notes that Mondragon, who specializes in social issues, "has a ways to go to demonstrate he can effectively move the environmental agenda forward," and King "has broken a long list of written promises."
ARIZONA: Voters in Arizona have clear choices. The seat held by retiring Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D, is contested by two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Sam Coppersmith and Republican Jon Kyl.
Coppersmith has the best environmental record of anyone in the Arizona delegation and is a member of the Grand Canyon Trust. Kyl, a lawyer who once served on the board of the Mountain States Legal Foundation and as a lobbyist for the Salt River water project, has one of the worst environmental voting records in Congress, says Sierra Club staffer Rob Smith. Kyl also has amassed a huge war chest, something that Coppersmith, who had to endure a lengthy vote recount in a dead-heat primary, may have trouble overcoming.
The races for the seats vacated by Kyl and Coppersmith are also studies in contrast. In Kyl's 4th District, Democrat Carol Cure, a lawyer, faces another lawyer, John Shadegg, whose campaign slogans include "Protect your property rights' and "Protect your hunting and fishing rights." And in Coppersmith's 1st District, environmentalists are supporting Chuck Blanchard over Republican Matt Salmon, another property-rights advocate.
The Navajo tribal election is scheduled for the same day as the general election, which bodes well for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Eddie Basha, whose Navajo support gave him the victory in the primary.
But there could be a hitch. Tribal President Peterson Zah, who is up for reelection, decided to include a last-minute ballot initiative on whether the tribe should pursue gambling. The election board may move the tribal election back a few weeks if it can't print new ballots in time, which could reduce Navajo turnout for the general election and hurt Basha, says Tom Arviso, publisher and editor of the Navajo Times.
The delay could also help Zah's opponents in the tribal presidential contest - lawyer Albert Hale and Larry Curley, a health and social services expert who hopes the election board approves him as a write-in candidate. Hale, who has worked closely with Zah in redesigning tribal government, is mounting the strongest challenge, says Arviso.
Some observers view Zah's decision to put the gambling issue to a vote as a smart political tactic that will not risk the tribal leadership's interest in bringing gaming to the Four Corners area reservation. Arviso says a series of public meetings held earlier this year showed that the majority of Navajo people want gambling.
UTAH: Two House races in Utah have distinct environmental significance. In the state's 2nd District, Democratic freshman Karen Shephard, a 100 percent environmental voter who has fought the Army's plan to shoot missiles over Moab, faces two opponents: Republican Enid Greene Waldholtz and Merril Cook, who is running as an independent. Cook has run for a number of Utah offices, including governor and state school board, and has wide name recognition; Greene Waldholtz wears the conservative banner.
In the 1st District, Republican Jim Hansen is fending off a challenge from Bobbie Coray, an economic development consultant from the Cache Valley. Hansen adamantly opposes new wilderness in the state. Recent polls show Coray, who has the support of the Sierra Club, trailing, but several national political reports say Hansen is still vulnerable.
WASHINGTON: Republican PAC money from all over the country is flowing into the state's 5th District, where Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley confronts the toughest race of his 29-year congressional career. That money, including a chunk from a group called De-Foley-Ate Congress, has bought advertisements in every media market of the district, including one television spot featuring Foley's face superimposed on President Bill Clinton's.
Some environmentalists say they would be glad to see the man who has long supported logging and aluminium interests in the Columbia River Basin lose to George Nethercutt, a former aide of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. But others fear a Foley defeat would leave a region needing pull in Congress without its strongest player.
A number of Foley's fellow Democrats in the House, including Jolene Unsoeld and Jay Inslee, are also in trouble. Unsoeld, whose district includes the timber country of the state's southwestern forests, barely won more votes in the September primary than last-minute write-in Linda Smith, R.
"It shows you how well organized the Christian right is," says Beth Doglio, director of the Washington Environmental Political Action, noting Smith's support from the Christian Coalition. Inslee, a freshman who ran as an environmentalist two years ago, was outpolled in the primary by Republican Doc Hastings, a state legislator with a Reaganite bent.
On the local level, the Growth Management Act is the hottest issue, says Doglio (HCN, 9/5/94). Property-rights advocates are supporting county commissioner and state legislature candidates who want to weaken the law, which requires comprehensive plans that protect wetlands and other natural resources. Doglio says her organization is helping pro-planning candidates in several counties, though not in the right-wing strongholds of central and eastern Washington.
OREGON: Oregon voters face a daunting list of 18 ballot initiatives. Among them are the latest incarnation of an anti-gay initiative, a ban on bear-baiting and hunting bear or cougars with dogs, and a measure requiring mining companies to backfill their pits. The latter was put together by environmentalists trying to keep a mining company from opening the first cyanide heap-leach gold mine in the state.
Democratic Gov. Barbara Roberts is stepping down from office, and former Republican Rep. Denny Smith is coming out of retirement in hopes of taking over. Smith, whose enviromental voting record was perennially among the worst in Congress, is opposed by Democrat John Kitzhaber, a former state legislator who was a board member of the Pacific Rivers Council.
Although Kitzhaber has been attacked by Smith for his environmental bent, the Democrat is known for his ability to bring opposing viewpoints together, as he showed when he crafted the state's progressive health plan, says Anna Goldrich, director of he Oregon Conservation League.
In the House, two progressive Democratic women are facing conservative Republican men for two open seats. In the state's rural 2nd District, Sue Kupillas is running against Wes Cooley for the seat vacated by conservative Republican Bob Smith. The 5th District contest for Democrat Mike Kopetski's seat features Catherine Webber against Jim Bunn. Both Bunn and Cooley have been endorsed by the Oregon Citizens' Alliance, which put the anti-gay measure on the ballot.
And in Oregon's 1st District, freshman incumbent Elizabeth Furse, D, is facing the most conservative Republican backed by the Alliance, Bill Witt. In a New York Times article on the rise of the Christian right in Oregon, Furse said, "We used to be known for things like land-use planning - the bottle bill, for God's sake. We are a progressive state and yet Oregon has become a real test case for the radical right. If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere." n
Paul Larmer is HCN's associate editor.