The West can govern itself

  • Book cover of "This Sovereign Land"

 

Democrat Daniel Kemmis has been the minority leader and the speaker of the Montana House of Representatives. He has been mayor of the university town of Missoula. He is an environmentalist.

Yet in This Sovereign Land, Kemmis, now head of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, argues that the national government must transfer power over the federal lands into local hands.

Kemmis' major argument for Western sovereignty is the failure of the national government to restore salmon to the Columbia River Basin, to replace Smokey Bear with a workable fire policy, to account for $10 billion in Indian trust funds, and, everywhere, to make public-land decisions in a timely way.

He calls the federal West a "procedural republic," where process trumps results, and where the feds act as "ringmaster" in a circus of competing interests. This is a national problem, but Westerners are especially vulnerable because we are farthest from Washington, D.C., and because half of the region is national lands.

Kemmis says Washington, D.C., is declining just as the West is becoming more capable. Look, he says, at the vibrant, democratic Western movement based on collaborative groups. Members of these groups are no longer content to be one of the performers in a circus ring orchestrated by a federal agency. Instead, the collaboratives bring together the clowns and lion trainers and trapeze artists to present the federal agency with a single, collective agenda.

The collaborative approach is usually sugar-coated. Proponents say collaboration is all about neighbors working with neighbors to come up with win-win solutions. Butter wouldn't melt in the mouth of a collaborative group.

The environmental movement has never bought that. In 1995, Mike McCloskey of the Sierra Club warned that collaboration would take power away from the urban-based environmental movement and hand it to Westerners (HCN, 5/13/96: Howdy, neighbor!: As a last resort, Westerners start talking to each other). And, because it is their nature, the Westerners would promptly sell the land to the clear-cutters, miners and overgrazers.

Kemmis doesn't think the land will be sold off to the despoilers, but neither does he airbrush collaboration. Moving power out of the White House and the Congress is serious stuff. He compares the push for Western sovereignty over national lands to the nation's schism over slavery and states' rights.

Are things so bad that we face a national crisis? I don't think so. But Kemmis is right when he says that it's not just a road closure or a dam decommissioning or a snowmobile ban in Yellowstone that is caught up in process and gridlock. Except where a tough-minded collaborative is at work, everything we try to do on public lands is soured by process. We get old trying to do the most reasonable things. Ask the activists who have been working on removing the Elwha dams in Washington state. Or the many bureaucrats and citizens who have been trying for a decade to figure out how to manage California's Sierra Nevada. Or how to heal the toxic mess centered on the mining pit in Butte, Mont. Or what to do with the nation's nuclear waste.

Kemmis is also right when he says the West is no longer the place characterized in the 1940s by writer Bernard De Voto as a mix of land despoilers and looters, continually telling the feds: "Get out and give us more money." De Voto, like his friend and biographer Wallace Stegner, is an example of what has changed. Both were native Westerners. But both fled to a coast to practice their art and to better protect the West from Westerners.

Western writers and artists and environmentalists no longer have to fight from exile for democracy and the environment. The West is no longer a totalitarian, third-rate banana republic. We're not first-rate, because we lack major private institutions of higher learning, first-rate media, and a broadly based citizen reform movement that cares about people and land. But the region has come a long way in a short time. We have come so far, Kemmis tells us, that he believes we are capable of self-government.

Kemmis writes that Westerners would manage public lands in ecologically sustainable ways if allowed to. But before that happens, the region must cease to be a fund-raising mechanism for the two political parties. The two parties scare their contributors with visions of what will happen if the other gets control of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. The irony is that despite all this national "concern," at the end of each presidential election the Interior West is once again roadkill.

Kemmis understands that the region is in the grip of powerful, self-interested political machines. Nevertheless, he's an optimist. He believes that someday the West will govern itself. He believes that Western states and the Indian nations will eventually gain increased control over their destinies. And then, he believes, the dams will come down and the salmon will return.

Ed Marston is the publisher of High Country News.