Conferences are often the worst place for journalists to find great story ideas or spontaneous comments – just imagine panelists sitting on a distant stage droning on about abstract topics and you'll find your eyelids involuntarily drooping.
But as someone with a lifelong interest in public lands, the lineup at the Center for the American West's three-day event at the University of Colorado campus in Boulder – The Nation Possessed: The Conflicting Claims on America's Public Lands – was too enticing to pass up. The evening I arrived, New York Times writer and author Tim Egan was on stage trying his best to get recently retired Director of the Bureau of Land Management Bob Abbey to say something provocative. Like the smart, good public servant he was for more than 30 years, Abbey resisted, but he couldn't hold back when Egan questioned him about the agency's struggles with the Endangered Species Act, which has been used by environmentalists to challenge everything from grazing to solar energy projects to oil and gas drilling. Said Abbey:
"Some interest groups, like Western Watersheds Project (founded by Jon Marvel of Hailey, Idaho), can engage BLM with endless requests for information and litigation….They go shopping for judges that will be sympathetic to their concerns. Our employees don't have time to get out on the ground, to monitor or do science because they are always responding to these legal requests….When you have a group with a stated goal of removing grazing from all public lands it takes away the ability of the agency to do a good job of managing those resources… When you are afraid of litigation all the time, you are not serving the public very well."
Jabbing at environmentalists was not the main thrust of the broad-minded event, run deftly by the witty Western historian (and director of the Center for the American West) Patty Limerick, who selected songs to play for the audience before each session (Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, for instance, before the one on climate change and forest policy). There were numerous other themes discussed, including the Interior Department's careful embrace of large scale solar energy development and its attempts to rein in oil and gas development. But one theme stood above the rest: how the federal estate continues to withstand sagebrush rebellious attempts to shrink it. The most recent example from Utah, where this spring the legislature passed a bill demanding that the federal government cede 30 million acres back to the state, was fresh on many panelists' minds. Not even mild-mannered Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who delivered a competent, if not inspiring luncheon speech touting the administration's achievements, could not resist commenting on the fact that Mitt Romney apparently backs the measure (When asked about it on a Nevada stop, Romney said, “Unless there’s a valid, legitimate and compelling public purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land.”) Salazar said Romney "doesn't understand that the public lands belong to the public."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar chats with former Utah Senator Bob Bennett
Boise State University public lands scholar John Freemuth was more sympathetic, saying that Romney is no different than other presidential candidates who didn't know much about the West. Freemuth reminded the audience that Interior Secretary Stewart Udall once said that President Kennedy, under whom he served, thought of him as the national gardener, albeit one who sat in on Cabinet meetings. "(Romney's) a smart guy, and I'll bet he'll have a better response next time the issue comes up."
But it was former Utah Senator Bob Bennett who provided the most humor and insight into the West's kneejerk anti-federalism. Said Bennett, who was ousted in the Republican primary in 2010 by Tea Partyer Mike Lee,
"The rise of the Tea Party in 2010 was based on the idea that 'we hate the federal government.' Anything connected to it is bad, including Senator Bob Bennett, so get rid of it, and they did. They had sufficient firepower to end my political career. I was really upset for the first 48 hours, then it was like "I'm free at last, free at last!
My young replacement – Mike Lee -- came up with the strategy of turning all the federal lands in Utah over to the state. He used the line, "Give them back" but they never belonged to Utah. He claims to have found proof that they should be "given back" in the U.S .Constitution -- the first time anyone has found such proof in 200 years! Every lawyer who has looked at this says that the Constitution is referring to the first 13 states, not the states formed by the federal government. But that doesn't matter -- the Constitution is the answer, now what was the question? Every one of the Governor's (Gary Herbert's) lawyers told him to veto the bill, but the Governor was looking at what the Tea Party did to me and thought, "I don't want them to do that to me," so he signed the bill. Now Utah is backing off…. and Lee no longer talks about this. The sound and fury will fade, but it will be back sometime because "we hate the government " is a proud western tradition."
Paul Larmer is the publisher of High Country News.