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HCN has it wrong on Bush

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The Dec. 6 feature article, "Taking the West Forward," grossly mischaracterizes the Bush administration’s policies and programs.

The article states the administration has "opened the region’s resources to development" when in fact public lands, at the direction of Congress, have been open for years. More typically, this administration has restricted development in previously open sensitive areas.

Your assertion that, "in her 2003 settlement with then-Utah Gov. Leavitt, Interior Secretary Norton, in one fell swoop, stripped approximately 4.4 million acres of citizen-proposed wilderness of protection" is a gross misstatement. The fact is, the legal status of those lands was never changed by any formal land-use plan decision or legislative action. Furthermore, the term, "citizen-proposed wilderness" is a misnomer; a more accurate term might be "advocacy-group proposed."

Most of BLM’s land-use plans were written in the 1980s or before, and called for oil and gas development over entire land-use planning areas. As we revise these plans, we are closing some areas to development altogether, and requiring strict stipulations on developers in open areas. Our plan for New Mexico’s Otero Mesa is an example. Previously, nearly 2 million acres were open for leasing; our recent record of decision closes more than 130,000 acres to leasing altogether.

The assertion that this administration has "dramatically reduced public involvement in decision making" is untrue. A new Bush administration policy specifically engages local governments and state agencies to be full cooperators in our planning efforts. This is one of Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s highest priorities.

Renewable energy development is also a high priority of the Interior Department. We have issued more than 60 wind and 200 geothermal permits since 2001, compared to just nine and 20 in the last four years of the previous administration, and we plan to do more. We have also worked long and hard to smooth the permitting process so that energy companies will have reasonable assurances that their considerable investments in renewable energy development will not get hung up in bureaucratic red tape. Some examples: We are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help inform renewable energy developers up front of what will be required of them to minimize impacts and protect migratory birds when siting wind development projects. The Departments of Interior and Energy recently conducted a thorough analysis of renewable energy production potential on all public lands. I would hardly call that a "half-hearted commitment."

Others outside of government have recognized Interior’s record of promoting renewable energy. Renewable energy expert Scott Sklar commended the Interior Department in his recent Renewable Energy Access article, "A Look at Bush Administration Policies Regarding Renewable Energy." Under the heading "Good News," he recognized Interior as a "strong backer" of renewables, writing that "Interior Secretary Norton led a very high profile program to remove barriers for renewable energy on federal lands …"

Misrepresentations (such as the ones appearing in High Country News) imply that citizens must proceed despite this administration, rather than in concert with it. I propose a different approach. Let’s work together to forge what HCN calls a "collective commitment to finding a way of living in the West that works."

Rebecca W. Watson, Assistant Interior Secretary for Land and Minerals
Washington, D.C.

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