Wildfire researcher in U.S. Forest Service's Fire Sciences Lab
Missoula, Mont.

An unorthodox expert on one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the West, Cohen has investigated monstrous wildfires and done "field experiments" -- intentionally steering fires toward buildings. Federal wildfire policy is "obviously failing," Cohen says. "It doesn't work." The feds devote billions of dollars to wide-scale thinning and manic firefighting, mostly to protect homes, yet fires continue to rampage, most recently in California, where more than 1,000 houses were destroyed in November. Cohen hopes that Obama will change fire policy, shifting responsibility from the federal government to the people whose houses are at risk. A few simple precautions, such as thinning vegetation outward to 100 feet from houses, would save mountains of taxpayer money, while reducing firefighter fatalities and property losses. "We can't exclude wildfires" from the forests, Cohen says. "Instead of viewing it as a wildfire-control problem, we need to view it as a home-ignition problem."


Journalist and author
Inverness, Calif.

Twelve years after his investigative book, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century, came out, Dowie continues to track the movement's struggles. He says Obama should restore various offices of "scientific integrity" that Bush quietly eliminated with budget cuts. "The names of the offices varied, but every agency had one, where you could go if you had a complaint about scientific fraud or abuse. Now (thanks to Bush), there is nowhere you can go with such a complaint. Not even the National Academy of Sciences -- a third of its operations used to be looking for scientific abuse, but if you make a complaint to them now, they say, 'We'll look into it, but only if you fund (the investigation).' " Dowie would also like to see Obama "call a meeting of leaders of environmental and conservation groups -- not just the big groups, but also a lot of the grassroots groups. Have a roundtable, and ask them the same question you're asking me: 'What can we do to assure the environmental health of our nation?' Be sincere, don't do it just to gain (political support)."                                    


Political science professor
University of California-Santa Barbara

Based on his analysis of U.S. senators' votes and discussions in recent years, Smith concludes that -- despite the Democrats' gains in the November elections -- Obama will not have an easy time passing aggressive new environmental laws. "In the new Congress, the enviros won't quite have enough votes in the Senate to push through any huge changes without some compromise or deal-making. On large issues, such as cap-and-trade (limits on carbon-dioxide emissions), or tougher fuel standards for vehicles, or developing wind power further, the enviros are going to have to put something on the table. I suspect the deals will include more offshore oil drilling, more natural gas development in the West, possibly guarantees for nuclear power plants, possibly even oil-shale development." There are "pro-oil Democrats," Smith notes, and the environmental movement itself is split over issues such as nuclear power and marching new electricity lines across the landscape. Basically, he advises Obama to "settle for what we can do."


Senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West
Missoula, Mont.

Kemmis is a longtime fan of consensus, especially of local compromises reached by environmentalists, ranchers and loggers. But he has seen such efforts stalled by inflexible regulations and the plodding bureaucracy of the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies. Obama, he says, should encourage the agencies to create a "virtual region" for experiments, so different approaches can be tested and new solutions found. Proposals for consensus efforts around the West could proceed under the loose supervision of this new "Region 7" -- Kemmis' suggested title, after a former Forest Service regional office that was merged with another office in 1965. "If you had a Region 7, whose whole purpose is to encourage experimentation, then collaborative efforts would have something to take hold of, rather than trying to fight against a system that doesn't know how to incorporate their ideas. Obama often states a commitment to getting diverse interests to solve problems together, pragmatically. The Region 7 idea seems entirely consistent with Obama's approach."


Chair of the Center of the American West
University of Colorado-Boulder

A deep-thinking historian, Limerick worries that Western environmentalists who have set their hopes too high could quickly grow frustrated with Obama. It's a pattern: Many hard-line enviros felt betrayed by the last two Democratic presidents -- especially by those presidents' secretaries of Interior, Bruce Babbitt and Cecil Andrus, because they weren't purists on grazing, endangered species, wilderness and other issues. Limerick urges the administration and environmentalists not to rush into clashes over issues, "the whole line-in-the-sand, Alamo type-of-thing again," regardless of who ends up running Interior. If Obama and Congress go too far in the rush to restore regulations weakened by Bush, they could trigger a whole new round of the Sagebrush Rebellion, anti-green, anti-government rage in rural communities. Limerick encourages a thoughtful approach: She advises environmentalists to "be more aimed in who you attack."