Jay Watson thought the Bush administration had finally given him something to celebrate. On Dec. 28, Mark Rey, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary of natural resources, announced that he had approved the Sierra Nevada Framework, the U.S. Forest Service's ambitious and controversial management plan that calls for less logging and grazing on 11 public forests in California (HCN, 8/27/01: Restoring the Range of Light).
"We are thoroughly delighted," crowed Watson, the California-Nevada regional director of The Wilderness Society. "After a decade of work, the decision is a victory for conservation."
But the party didn't last long.
Four days later, Jim Blackwell, the regional forester who oversees the Sierra Range, announced that the Framework is still a work in progress. Based on a directive from Rey to make more locally based decisions, Blackwell will consider how the plan affects recreation and livestock grazing, and amend it to include more logging.
"This is a direct attack on the Framework," says Watson. "Certainly, Mark Rey knew when he made his announcement that four days later they would launch a full-scale review. This was a clearly choreographed set of events."
Surprisingly, greens aren't the only ones upset. Off-road vehicle users and loggers wanted Bush to gut the entire plan, and they say a review spells revision, not rejection. Now threats of lawsuits fly through the air like jabs in a boxing ring.
The heated and confusing scenario resembles many Bush administration reviews of Clinton-era regulations. On a national level, Interior Department officials are examining ways to weaken new provisions in both the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. In the Intermountain West, the administration is reviewing initiatives that would prohibit road-building in national forests, ban snowmobiles from national parks and reintroduce grizzly bears in Montana and Idaho. Yet most pundits say revising Clinton-era policies is a far cry from a proactive Western public-lands agenda.
"There's clearly no overarching natural resource strategy," says John Freemuth, senior fellow with the Andrus Center for Public Policy in Boise, Idaho. "We're all waiting for more clear data points."
A passive protocol
There are three quick and easy explanations why the administration has yet to devise a game plan for public lands: a disputed election, an anemic economy and September 11. But even administration supporters complain that Bush's attention to the West is relatively slight.
When Bruce Babbitt was confirmed as Clinton's Interior secretary in 1993, he immediately began to push an aggressive agenda to increase grazing fees on the public lands and impose mining regulations. In the third month of the Clinton administration, both the president and the vice president flew to Portland, Ore., and met with loggers, conservationists and scientists over the spotted owl fracas. By July of his first year in office, Clinton had announced the Northwest Forest Plan, an ecosystem management plan for 24 million acres of forests in Washington, Oregon and northern California (HCN, 7/26/93: The Clinton Forest Plan in brief).
"The previous administration got involved with us right up front," says Chris West of the pro-timber American Forest Resource Council. "(The Bush administration) has said a lot of good things, but at this point it's hard to say what they'll do. The jury's still out."
There are other indications that the public lands aren't a high priority for this administration. One year into its term, sub-cabinet level positions, the real policy worker bees of the Interior, are still vacant.
"Right now, BLM appointments are just being considered," says Freemuth. "Clearly, if they had some major agenda, those (acting directors) would be long gone."
Still, some conservationists say that the public shouldn't assume this apparent lack of strategy is good for the environment. At a recent press conference held by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, executive director Vawter "Buck" Parker announced that due to a fear of bad press, the administration has allowed a broad range of these reviews to wind up in the courts.
"There is a disturbing pattern where industry sues to overturn environmental regulations and the Justice Department puts up only the feeblest of defenses and refuses to appeal adverse decisions," says Parker. "The courts have become the forum of choice for rolling back environmental protections."
The court case over the Clinton-era proposed ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park is a good example, says Parker. Last April, the administration announced its support for the rule and allowed it to go into effect. But when the snowmobile industry sued the government, the administration didn't defend the law (HCN, 7/30/01: Snowmobile ban stalled). Instead, it entered into negotiations with the industry to settle the suit and devise a new plan.
Similarly, when a district court judge blocked the roadless rule, a Clinton-created policy that protects 58.5 million acres of federal forest from road building, the Justice Department missed the July deadline to appeal the ruling (HCN, 7/30/01: Bush fails to defend roadless rule). Due to nine other ongoing lawsuits, the administration says, it is working to revise the rule.
This seeming passivity is actually a sophisticated strategy, says Parker, because it allows Bush to make major changes in policy without involving Congress, and the public can't trace who's responsible.
"The judicial process in our country depends on two parties making the strongest case (they) can," he says. "When the administration purposely makes a weak argument, it subverts the entire democratic process."
Environmentalists say that another pillar of democracy, the media, is also hamstrung.
"In light of September 11, the news hole of environmental news coverage has shrunk dramatically," says Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of the Sierra Club. "People don't have a clue what Bush is doing."
The drill for 2002
While administration officials say the public should expect some new and exciting proposals in the coming year, they remain lean on specifics. Ask Undersecretary Rey what proactive policies his agency is developing and he gives one example: energy. In order to increase energy development on public lands and encourage innovative projects, he says, the Forest Service is looking into ways to streamline both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The Interior Department is also working on some new policies, says Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. The Interior budget currently has $100 million dedicated to developing private-landowner incentive programs, such as encouraging landowners to remove invasive species on their property by providing technical assistance, tax credits, financial resources or scientific advice. Other collaborative projects between environmentalists, landowners and government are in the works, says Scarlett.
"The goal is to inspire private landowners to proactively participate in conservation efforts and put emphasis on cooperation and results," says Scarlett. "If we could leave at the end of four years and feel like the greater preponderance of decisions were made through collaboration, we'd be happy."
If the administration is smart, it will initiate these collaborative approaches before it implements its national energy plan, says Chris Wood, former assistant to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. Otherwise, says Wood, the Bush administration will be ramming policy down the public's throat - something it has routinely accused the Clinton administration of doing.
"It gets down to the maturity of the administration to recognize that conservation of the public lands is inevitable," says Wood. "You can wish the clock back 20 years, but whether through lawsuits or elections or editorials, the public will turn against ill-advised development."
Rebecca Clarren is associate editor at High Country News.