Red light, green light

by Ray Ring

Despite the midwinter economic-recession blues plaguing much of the West, environmentalists have reason to feel good. After eight years of being frustrated by President George W. Bush, suddenly they're getting traction. Signs include:

On Jan. 20, just hours into his term, President Barack Obama froze all the Bush deregulation efforts that had not been finalized by the bureaucratic process. Thus, Obama's administration will have time to review that batch of gutted regulations, and many -- including those governing endangered species and oil shale development -- will likely be restored to full strength.

Then on Jan. 26, Obama made big moves on climate change and oil conservation. He effectively ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to open the door for California, Arizona, New Mexico and nine other states to go ahead with plans to limit global-warming emissions from vehicles. And he ordered the Transportation Department to enforce a law requiring automakers to increase their fleets' fuel efficiency. Both moves reversed Bush policies and will likely produce meaningful results in just a few years.

"The days of Washington (D.C.) dragging its heels are over," Obama vowed.

A day after that, Obama's secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, said he'll revive the authority of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to shape federal projects that could affect endangered species. And on Feb. 4, Salazar canceled 77 controversial oil and gas leases near national parks in Utah. (The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other green groups gave Salazar time to make his move by pressing a lawsuit that froze leases that were offered to companies in December.)

Congress -- controlled by greenish Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California -- also acted as Bush exited. The Senate passed a huge public-lands "omnibus" package that would ratify many wilderness and other land-protection deals negotiated locally in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, California and New Mexico. The House passed Obama's $819 billion economic stimulus plan, which calls for spending more than $90 billion on clean-energy development, energy-efficiency improvements, environmental cleanup, wildfire prevention and clean water projects. (Both those actions still need approval by the opposite chamber as well as by Obama.)

Green groups in Montana -- including the Montana Environmental Information Center -- defeated one of the West's worst coal-power-plant proposals. Rural electric co-ops wanted to build the Highwood Generating Station near the historic site where the Lewis and Clark expedition portaged around dangerous falls on the Missouri River. Green lawyers have helped neighbors -- concerned about air pollution as well as desecration of the site -- battle the proposal for the last five years. On Feb. 2, the utilities announced, they'll build a smaller, natural-gas-powered plant instead.

Also in January, lawyers for WildEarth Guardians notched up a victory against increased drilling in the Santa Fe National Forest. And the Snake River Alliance in Idaho faced down an unusual slander lawsuit filed by a nuclear-plant developer, Alternative Energy Holdings Inc. (The environmental group's director, Andrea Shipley, had called the company's officials "scammers." A judge ruled on Jan. 16 that the insult was a form of opinion protected by the First Amendment.)

Democratic Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter even sent an enviro lawyer's spouse to fill the Senate seat that Salazar vacated: Michael Bennet is married to Susan Daggett, a longtime lawyer for environmental groups, according to NewWest.net. Bennet's background lies mainly in education, but he'll likely help turn the Senate a bit greener.

The news is never all good. Winter inversions trapped thick air pollution over Salt Lake City and Boise during January. Another federally protected wolf was illegally shot to death in Arizona. The latest climate-change study found that even if we reduce worldwide emissions to preindustrial levels, the excess carbon dioxide already in circulation will cause climate-change trends to continue; the impacts -- drought, wildfires and melting glaciers -- will still be felt 1,000 years from now.

And a national Pew Research Center poll, released Jan. 22, found that only 41 percent of the public now rates "protecting the environment" as a "top priority," down from 56 percent last year. The economy and jobs have become the top priorities for more than 80 percent of Americans.

© High Country News