The Editors Respond

  We appreciate Rebecca Watson’s invitation to Westerners, and we salute the many positive efforts Interior is undertaking to protect wild places and involve the public. But we do not believe HCN has mischaracterized the Bush administration’s record.

On the subject of opening land to development:

In 2001, the Department of Agriculture rewrote the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would have protected 58.5 million acres of national forest (HCN, 7/30/01: Bush fails to defend roadless rule). In the past two years, the Forest Service has leased 92,000 acres of roadless lands for oil and gas development, and proposed logging on another 17,000 acres. Dozens of additional projects are in the works.

While the 4.4 million acres of wilderness-quality Bureau of Land Management land in Utah never had legislative protection, the previous administration gave them interim administrative protection so that Congress could decide whether to formally protect them as wilderness. Since the 2003 Norton-Leavitt settlement, the BLM has leased approximately 148,000 acres of this land for oil, gas and coal development. Hundreds of thousands more acres of wilderness-quality land will soon be on the auction block.

Regarding Otero Mesa, Assistant Secretary Watson says that "previously, nearly 2 million acres were open for leasing; our recent record of decision closes more than 130,000 acres." Those 2 million acres were open prior to 1998, when the BLM called a halt to all leasing on Otero Mesa until it could complete an environmental impact statement. The BLM’s final plan, released in January, opens all but 124,000 acres to drilling.

On the subject of public participation:

The administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative expands the use of "categorical exclusions" to exempt logging operations on up to 1,000 acres from the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental review and public comment. In December, the Forest Service adopted regulations that allow forest supervisors to categorically exclude new forest plans, as well as plan revisions and amendments, from NEPA analysis.

The Forest Service’s "content analysis team" was widely believed to be tops when it came to evaluating public comment. The shop was shut down after staffers disagreed with administration higher-ups who asked them to minimize the appearance of controversy, and stop tracking overall public support or opposition (HCN, 4/26/04: Outsourced).

Regarding renewable energy:

President Bush’s proposed 2002 budget would have cut funds for renewable energy resources by $190 million. In 2003, he proposed adding $21 million, but half of that was meant for his hydrogen initiative and for hydropower, while solar, geothermal, and biomass programs were cut. In 2004, he wanted to cut more from wind and geothermal, and give solar and biomass only negligible increases. Bush’s 2006 budget would cut solar energy programs by more than $1.1 million and biomass programs by $30.5 million.

Watson quotes energy expert Scott Sklar as praising the Department of Interior, but in that same article, Sklar gives the Bush administration a " ‘C minus’ … or maybe a ‘D plus’ " for its renewable energy policies.

The editors of High Country News