A chance to do it right in the West


The 2008 election took the West another big step down the path of political realignment that has been underway since the turn of the century. By 2000, the Rocky Mountain West had become essentially a one-party region. All eight of its governors were Republicans, as were 13 of its 16 senators.  In the 2000 election, Al Gore barely carried New Mexico, but all the rest of the region's electoral votes contributed to George W. Bush's razor-thin victory.  And in 2004, Bush took all the electoral votes in the Rockies.

By then, however, the region's political realignment was well underway, and by 2008 it had gained enough momentum to give Barack Obama 19 mountain-state electoral votes. That is the nationally visible tip of an iceberg of political realignment that had been steadily progressing in this region, where five of the eight governors are now Democrats, as are seven of the 16 senators.  Fully a third of the increase in Nancy Pelosi's House majority came from the Rockies, including Walt Minnick's dramatic victory in Idaho, the reddest state in the nation.

It is against this background that Obama's transition team is now recommending possible names for Interior secretary and other public-land posts, and not for decades has it been so crucial that the region's voice be heard and heeded.

What the new West has to say fits perfectly with what Obama has been saying throughout his campaign. This is a time to transcend old ideological and partisan differences nationwide, and it is past time to do the same with the issues that have most deeply divided the West for decades. Western ambassadors like Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer are ideally positioned to remind the new administration that the region has been quietly practicing and perfecting that Obama-like search for common ground for about 20 years, as ranchers, loggers, conservationists, hunters and anglers have worked together to create pragmatic solutions to public land and resource problems.

In the process, this region has produced an impressive roster of savvy and experienced people. John Kitzhaber, for example, who is often mentioned as a potential secretary of the Interior, was a pioneer in encouraging collaborative approaches to salmon, forest and watershed issues during his tenure as governor of Oregon. Sub-cabinet positions might go to people like Courtney White, who has spent years at the Quivira Coalition in Santa Fe bringing ranchers and environmentalists together over grazing issues, or Jan Brown, who, at the Henry's Fork Foundation in Idaho, and later at the Yellowstone Business Partnership, has patiently built trust among farmers, anglers, business leaders and environmentalists all around Yellowstone National Park. These and dozens of other pioneers in the new Western ways of solving tough problems represent a reservoir of talent for the "change we need" in Washington's approach to the West.

But will it happen?  Will the transition team look in this direction for appointments to the key positions affecting the region?  Many Westerners fear a default to the same Beltway-dominated, command-and-control approaches to which Democratic administrations have all too often resorted when filling key public land and resource positions. Much as I like and respect Bruce Babbitt and Jim Lyons, whom Bill Clinton named to oversee the Interior Department and the Forest Service, their policies all too often re-enforced widespread Western perceptions that Democrats were insensitive to the needs of rural or resource-dependent communities. Anything resembling a replay of that pattern would be a gigantic mistake.

Politically, Democrats are poised to continue the region's realignment by delivering 30 or more electoral votes in 2012, and perhaps promoting rising stars like the Democratic mayors of Salt Lake City, Boise and Denver to statewide offices. But presidential appointments that simply swing the pendulum back to a "now it's our turn" approach to public land and resource issues are liable to be perceived as a new "War on the West." That will certainly make it harder to elect or re-elect Western Democrats and harder to hold and expand Obama's foothold in the region.

Now there's an opportunity to move beyond the pendulum swings in policy that produce more gridlock, more litigation, more bitterness and less sustainable protection of Western ecosystems and ways of life. Westerners should be using every ounce of influence they have with the transition team to make sure that opportunity isn't lost.

Daniel Kemmis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Collaboration as a Tool, Not a Philosophy
Dec 01, 2008 08:26 AM
Cooperation on problem solving by diverse interest groups certainly is worth championing. But, to call for a commitment to collaboration as the default philosophy in managing the West's stressed and exploited resources is a bit naive and limiting. It ignores the valuable role litigation has played in stopping rampant pillaging of the West, its landscape and its living/non-living resources,and the historical fact that most of the litigation was necessary because either the extractive industries or the various agencies of the federal government charged with the management AND protection of those resources were simply not doing their legislatively mandated duties. It all well and good to get the various actors to sit down in good faith, but one also needs to conduct such negotiations in an atmosphere that recognizes and pays due consideration to the science and ecological truths about the state of these resources, and just how much more "use and development" these entities can take. Without this overriding ethic, the talks simply become an unrealistic over allocation that mimics the insanity of Western water law. Conservationists and preservationists should certainly sit down with ranchers and miners and the OG folks, but keep one hand on your wallet at all times.
value of collaboration
Diana K
Diana K
Dec 03, 2008 05:15 PM
As a public land rancher and practioner of collaboration for my whole life and its wsork, I am offended by the previous comment which shows a deep seated fear of setting goals, monitoring progress toward those goals instead of looking at stacks of science which are derived by looking back. If we do not look forward and change how we approach resource management, we will only perpetuate what we are getting now. Which is my humble opinion is not healthy watercatchments, not healthy soil, not healthy local economies based on renewable resource harvesting and management but rather the results are stagnation, paper shuffling, needless research, precious financial resources spent to defend political positions and deteriorating resource conditions. It is a reflection of 'scarcity mentality' which only produces scarcity. Let's get beyond all the nonesense, come together to describe what we need to produce on public lands and all lands in the West and trust our judgement to evaluate tegether if we are achieving our goals. Do not be afraid of the word 'produce', only one measure of which is profit. But please remember 'profit' is what pays for everything done in the name of 'natural resource management'. It is either paid in taxes which keeps the wheels of government turning, it is donated to organizations to influence resource management or to attorneys to defend resource management. But the profit arrises out of some US citizen' hard and smartly carried out work. My family has been ranching on public lands for 100+ years and we are so tired of fighting to have others join us to learn from the land and not only from books and scientific studies. Listen, watch, feel what the land and all its resource parts are telling us, then move to enhance it to produce the myriad of products that humans need to survive (whether they are Americans or Africans or??). The last missing attribute of our land management is trust, and we each must earn that from each other. This process is tremendously powerful and must be practiced locally, not out of Washington DC or through litigation.
I am not getting any younger and our nation's needs are not getting smaller. We can make the changes needed for all, and collaboration works well when allowed to work. It is a very exciting process to be part of. Thank you.
Dec 11, 2008 04:00 PM
Both posters raise good points. I agree that litigation is often warranted, and the courts have really saved the earth’s bacon from the Bush Administration the last 8 years. However, many times litigation is not warranted and is not beneficial. Jim seems to forget that many cases where environmentalists sue are lost. This waste everyone’s time and money, and leaves the environment with nothing if you lose. Also, I’m not sure I like the line about “Conservationists and preservationists should certainly sit down with ranchers and miners and the OG folks, but keep one hand on your wallet at all times.” What this means to me is that enviro interests are happy to sit in because they look bad if they don’t, but don’t intend to really collaborate. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this in practice. The goal is to obstruct and stall, not to look for beneficial win-win solutions. Fortunately, this is not the case for all groups.

I do recognize that sometimes folks need to take a stand and not compromise away some things that are truly important. Not every situation is appropriate for collaboration. But I largely agree with Mr. Kemmis that is needs to be a cornerstone of natural resource policy. However, do we all remember Bush’s “Four C’s?” Collaboration, blah, blah, blah. Turns out this wasn’t something Mr. Cheney or Ms. Norton wanted to support if the collaboration resulted in a decision that was counter to their interests. They touted “local processes,” but when an overwhelming cry came from western Colorado to not drill on the top of the Roan Plateau, “local decision making” went out the window. I hope Obama’s administration practices what they preach when it comes to collaboration.