WASHINGTON, D.C. - Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, just before and after George W. Bush was inaugurated, when some of his Western supporters spoke openly about nullifying those 11 new national monuments created by the presidential predecessor they hated.
Enter reality, both legal and political. It turns out that the law on un-creating monuments does not exist. And to the apparent surprise of some Western Republicans, it turned out that most folks - even most Westerners - thought they were a good idea.
So in one manner or another they are here to stay. But in what manner? The presidential proclamations leave many blanks, to be filled in by the Bureau of Land Management, in whose tender care the monuments were placed.
Until late April, that care resembled what an earlier administration once called benign neglect. As various interested parties waited, the BLM and its parent Interior Department did ... well, nothing. A few quasi-official meetings were cancelled because there was nothing to discuss. The elaborate planning process required under the law could not begin until Department of Interior said "go." So nothing began.
No wonder, then, that on April 24, when Interior Secretary Gale Norton finally announced her intention "to develop plans managing the national monuments established under the Department's jurisdiction in 2000 and 2001" (that's government jargon for "Go"), the environmental fraternity expressed "cautious optimism." The optimism comes from relief that something is finally being done. The caution comes from a paucity of confidence in the folks who are doing the doing.
Nor was confidence in any way upgraded when Norton said she wanted to make "the planning process a model of how to involve the people who live and work closest to these monuments."
To those already distrustful of the Administration, that could sound rather like an intention to give the locals veto power over the final management plans. And since the locals tend to be dominated (or in some cases, intimidated) by commercial interests and/or political-psychological hostility to preservation, those final management plans could end up allowing more mining, drilling, grazing and driving than the resources can tolerate.
The driving might be more of a problem than the drilling. Only one of the new monuments - the Canyons of the Ancients in southwestern Colorado - has extensive petroleum deposits. But most of them are regularly visited by all-terrain vehicle drivers, and in the case of the Cascade-Siskiyou Monument in Oregon, by recreational miners who bring their own bulldozers.
Adena Cook, the public-lands director for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which champions the cause of mechanized recreators, says her organization "will be working to keep open" the roads and trails its members now use. The Coalition will not, however, seek rules allowing off-road vehicles to wander all over the monuments.
"Oh, heavens no," she says. "All use needs to be managed. All that needs to be evaluated on a site-specific basis."
None of this is likely to satisfy environmentalists convinced that even the existing level of zipping and zooming degrades the values for which the monuments were established. Nor are they likely to be comforted by Cook's insistence that the monument decision-making "has to be locally based."
This could depend on how one defines "local." In Montana, for instance, some of the neighboring ranchers, gas speculators, and motorized river-rafters appear unhappy about the new Missouri River Breaks National Monument northeast of Great Falls. But polls leave little doubt that most Montanans are all for it.
In fact, despite the conservationist chorus of complaints - that the public comment "scoping" periods are too short, that the public meetings might be held in remote areas hard for their supporters to reach, that the Administration pays them no mind - political and legal realities might still combine to provide the new monuments with ample protection.
The law does not give BLM complete discretion, and federal workers tend to take their jobs seriously. So, for instance, when the preliminary management statement for the Canyons of the Ancients Monument in Colorado holds that "the area will be managed ... so as not to create any new impacts that would interfere with the proper care and management of the objects protected by the designation," it's reasonable to assume that the BLM's draft management plan will reflect that approach.
Of course, the professionals in the National Park Service called for banning snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, a judgment politicians in the Bush administration seem intent on sabotaging. But these politicians are practicing dumb politics, as some Republican strategists concede (though not for publication). The monument process that Gale Norton just began will take about two years, meaning that final decisions will come in mid-2004, months before the next Presidential election. Bush's approval rating remains high, but it is slipping. On no subject is he rated lower than on environmental policy.
So how is it in his interest to pick yet another fight with the conservation community, even over one of the esoteric environmental issues?
It isn't. Adena Cook says the Blue Ribbon Coalition speaks for some 600,000 Americans. Almost 50 million Americans visited a national monument last year. As the late, great, Richard J. Daley said, the first thing a politician has to learn to do is count
Jon Margolis covers Washington, D.C., from his perch in Barton, Vermont.
Copyright © 2002 HCN and Jon Margolis