A look at Interior’s counterrevolution — and its unintended consequences

 

The secretary of the Interior steps to the podium and plunges into a speech about why new grazing regulations — and higher grazing fees — are needed to protect the public lands. The crowd of cowboy-hatted ranchers in Grand Junction, Colo., listens quietly, but tension is building, and it surfaces noisily during the question-and-answer session:

"Why do you want to drive us out of business?" the ranchers ask. "Don’t you know that ranchers are the best environmental stewards you could ever get?"

The year is 1993; the official at the podium is Bruce Babbitt. Babbitt gamely responds, but most likely senses that he is about to get his first shellacking as the primary manager of the West’s public lands and natural resources. The new grazing rules aren’t put in place for another two years; as soon as they are, ranchers challenge them in court, reducing them to a shadow of what Babbitt had envisioned.

Babbitt’s reading of Western politics may have been premature, but he was stubborn. He turned his considerable energy into other areas, including the Endangered Species Act, reform of the 1872 Mining Law and, in his final years as secretary, the creation and expansion of more than a dozen national monuments on public lands across the West. The top-down imposition of monuments rubbed many Westerners the wrong way. But Babbitt stuck to his conviction that conservation had supplanted extraction as the primary purpose of the public lands, and he had faith that the public supported this shift.

Thus, when Gale Norton, a private-property-rights-loving former attorney general from Colorado, took over the reins of the Interior Department in 2001, then-High Country News publisher Ed Marston predicted that Norton and the Bush team would find it difficult to dismantle a "reborn" Interior (HCN, 1/15/01: Coloradan tapped for Interior). But it turned out to be easier than HCN expected.

Dismantling a legacy

Over the past five years, the Bush administration has done its best to institute a counterrevolution, yanking the Interior Department from its new path of conservation back onto the familiar road of extraction. Within months of arriving in office, the administration had overturned Babbitt’s modestly progressive rules on mining, pressured the National Park Service to reverse its ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone, and laid plans to settle a lawsuit with the state of Utah by opening up potential Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas across the Rockies to oil and gas development.

From the day Vice President Dick Cheney invited energy companies to set the nation’s energy policy, the Bush White House made no secret that expanding domestic oil and gas production in the West was one of its top priorities. The destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the ensuing war in Iraq, and the rapid rise of energy prices only solidified this stance.

Granted, these events, even under a Gore administration, would have spurred an intense energy boom in the West. Bush’s Interior has been able to accelerate drilling in the West largely because the Clinton administration had already leased large tracts of public lands to energy companies, says John Leshy, Interior’s top lawyer under Babbitt.

Still, the Bush administration has shown little restraint. It has pushed to open the West’s most untrammeled lands to energy companies, including Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and roadless BLM holdings that Clinton had protected. Directives from Norton’s office sought to make leasing and drilling on public lands as "streamlined" as ordering a meal at a fast-food drive-through window. The number of drilling permits issued doubled during Norton’s five-year tenure.

Even the national parks did not escape. The ongoing struggle over a proposed rule change that would elevate recreation over resource protection has demoralized that once-proud agency, sending many of its finest employees looking for greener pastures.

Interior’s quiet first woman

For five years, Norton, the first woman to serve as secretary of Interior, sat at the center of this counterrevolution, yet she was hardly noticeable. Though she showed up for the occasional photo-op, she rarely mixed it up with Western constituencies the way Babbitt did. A loyal foot soldier, she did what she was told and stayed out of the spotlight. Her undersecretaries, especially the now-departed J. Steven Griles, often played more central roles in the push to open public lands to energy companies. Even in the one area where conservationists give her credit — pushing the Colorado River Basin states to come up with a plan to divvy up water during times of drought — Norton was more of a catalyst than an innovator.

Norton adopted language that suited her retiring nature and counterbalanced her department’s hard-edged advocacy for development. In her infrequent interviews with the media, she touted what she described as the Four C’s: Communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation. Even as she sidestepped questions about local opposition to drilling in sensitive areas, she pointed proudly to new monies Interior was making available to private landowners to protect wildlife habitat (HCN, 5/24/04: The Complete Gale Norton Interview).

But her record in the areas she purportedly cared most about — private-lands conservation, market-based environmentalism and local collaboration — was uneven. She launched a Take Pride in America program that supports volunteer-led projects on public lands, and she held the first-ever White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation. But many conservationists viewed these activities as mostly talk.

Under Norton’s watch, the Land and Water Conservation Fund — the largest single source of money for land purchases, trades and conservation easements — virtually dried up, even as its funding source — offshore oil and gas drilling revenues — increased. Norton nixed a locally supported plan to reintroduce grizzly bears in the Idaho wilderness, and she backed away from allowing willing ranchers to sell their grazing permits to conservation groups.

The Quality of Life coalition

Gale Norton will not go down in history as a visionary Interior secretary, but she, and those above her who called the shots, may be remembered for their inadvertent role in advancing progressive politics in the West.

In pockets around the region, conservation-minded Westerners are coming together, especially near the red-hot gas fields of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and New Mexico. This new coalition includes ranchers and farmers, realtors and retirees, hunters and environmentalists, who understand that the only way to protect the places they love is to work together. Call it the Quality of Life coalition.

It’s what Babbitt had hoped was already in place a dozen years ago. It surfaced in the 2004 elections in Colorado and Montana, with the election of progressive, pro-conservation lawmakers in the state legislatures and Congress (HCN, 11/22/04: Election Day surprises in the schizophrenic West). And it’s likely to appear in force again at the mid-term elections in 2006.

The Bush administration has reluctantly acknowledged this political shift. The administration has felt the sting of angry lawmakers, including conservative Western Republicans, who have shot down successive proposals to sell public lands to developers. Even with solid Republican majorities in both houses, the White House has kept a polite distance from the radical agenda of the property-rights movement, including its efforts to gut the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

But it is unlikely that Interior will change its course during the administration’s final two and a half years. On March 22, a week before leaving office, Norton undercut another Babbitt public-lands protection initiative. She issued a secretarial order asserting that the BLM does not have the authority to determine what roads on federal lands are legal, effectively putting that power in the hands of states instead — and she ended an agreement with the state of Utah that prohibited counties from claiming ownership of roads in wilderness areas and national parks.

The task of managing one-fifth of the nation’s land base and five major agencies — the BLM, the Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Reclamation — now falls to Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. Bush nominated Kempthorne as Norton’s replacement on March 16, and he is expected to win Senate confirmation easily.

Kempthorne, a former U.S. senator, is no friend of the environmental community, but he is well acquainted with the immense demographic shifts that are now remaking the economic, social and political fabric of the West. If there is any slack in his tight White House leash, he would be wise to use it to get on the ground, and meet the real Westerners who make up the Quality of Life coalition. He should ask them why they are so angry at the federal government’s mad rush to drill for gas. And then he should seek that elusive fifth C: compromise.

 

Paul Larmer (plarmer@hcn.org) is the publisher of High Country News.