Obama should pick Kemmis to help run Interior or Ag


Up front: I know Dan Kemmis. I've interviewed him, hung out with him at events, read his books and other writings. I like Dan for his careful manner and his visionary, out-of-the-box thinking about the West. I also like how he's grounded in the real world.

So add my voice to the back-channel chorus calling for Barack Obama to appoint Dan Kemmis to a high position in either the Agriculture Department or the Interior Department, where Dan could lead the West through an evolution of problem-solving.

In Agriculture, Dan could be just below the Secretary of Ag, overseeing national forests.

In Interior, Dan could be just below that Secretary, overseeing the federal sagebrush of the Bureau of Land Management, as well as national parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges.

In brief: Dan has degrees from Harvard and the University of Montana law school. He's devoted many years to politics, as a leader in the Montana legislature from 1975 to 1984, then two terms as Missoula's mayor into the 1990s. Since then, he's led think tanks, most recently the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, headquartered in Missoula. He's a Democrat, but more accurately he's an independent -- not in any interest group's pocket.

Based on his experiences, Dan thinks Westerners should be allowed more power over managing federal lands, through collaborative groups involving local governments, enviros, ranchers, loggers and other interests. He's a champion of that view, and he pushes it further than others do, with innovative ideas.

He sees how the federal processes -- outdated, slow and clunky, burdened by unyielding regulations, unresponsive to local concerns -- encourage conflict and obstruct solutions and progress.

To see what Dan looks like, his mug shot shows with one of his recent columns in High Country News, in which he hopes the new Interior Secretary will back collaboration. In an earlier column in HCN, he writes about the West "learning to think as a region -- environmental issues have nothing to do with political boundaries."

Quoting from Dan's 2001 book, This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West:

I believe that Westerners, claimed by and committed to their place, have finally come to the borders of a political maturity that will enable them to take responsibility for the place that made them Westerners.

… It is precisely as a democrat and an environmentalist that I am convinced the West is now ready to be in charge of the West, and that this can happen only through a gradual, thoughtfully conceived, and carefully executed transfer of responsibility for most of the public lands in the West. I do not mean privatization any more than I mean turning the land over to the states.

Basically, Dan thinks, across the quarreling interest groups, Westerners' love for the land will lead to responsible land management, a better sense of community and cooperation, if the government stands back to some degree, to let such on-the-ground policy-making communities come alive.

Former High Country News publisher Ed Marston praised Dan in 2002, including:

Kemmis understands that the region is in the grip of powerful, self-interested political machines. Nevertheless, he's an optimist. He believes that someday the West will govern itself. He believes that Western states and the Indian nations will eventually gain increased control over their destinies. And then, he believes, the dams will come down and the salmon will return.

More of Dan's credentials, from the Center for the Rocky Mountain West's website:

(Kemmis) was recognized by the Utne Reader in 1995 as one of its "100 Visionaries." In 1997, President Clinton awarded Kemmis the Charles Frankel Prize for outstanding contribution to the field of the humanities. Also in 1997, he was the recipient of the Society for Conservation Biology's Distinguished Achievement Award for Social, Economic and Political work. In 1998, the Center of the American West awarded him the Wallace Stegner Prize for sustained contribution to the cultural identity of the West. In the fall of 1998 he was awarded a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics. In February, 2000, he was invited to Washington, D.C., to deliver the Pinchot Distinguished Lecture. In 2002, his book This Sovereign Land was the top choice for the Interior Department's Executive Forum Speaker Series.

Dan just turned 63 and retired from the Center. He's available for a high appointment in the Obama administration. Some influential Westerners are campaigning for him, by writing letters of recommendation to Obama and Congressional offices and etc. He's a long shot, because he isn't an insider -- but that's another good credential.

Dan also has a link into the Obama team. When Dan ran for re-election as Missoula's mayor years ago, his campaign manager was Jim Messina, who went on rising in politics and recently served as chief of staff for Obama's presidential campaign. I profiled Messina in a Q&A during the campaign.

I'll go on about Dan at length here, because the letters of recommendation I've seen still don't quite do justice. Let this blog post be a reference fleshing out Dan's resume. (Keep reading if you're interested.)

The Utne Reader 1995 profile of Dan talked about his 1990 book, Community and the Politics of Place, and his strategy as Missoula's mayor, allowing projects to unfold "naturally":

… Kemmis is one of the first city officials in the U.S. to put the principles of "communitarianism," a movement that emphasizes personal responsibility for and participation in the resolution of community problems, into practice.

… It's a political philosophy hostile to the centralized schemes for civic development that swell the egos of urban planners but often render cities sterile. Kemmis likes localized, incremental improvements that, as he puts it, "tend to complete themselves." A case in point is the development of trails and greenways along Missoula's Clark Fork River. Rather than push a grand plan, Kemmis and his allies built a park here, a trail there.

"Then, the more complete it became, the more people used it," he recalls. "The more they used it, the more frustrated they became at the gaps in it, and a very natural kind of political pressure came into being. Landowners who were holding out came to see that it was inevitable. … At one point I supported a bridge across the Clark Fork that the business community wanted and my natural constituency, the environmentalists, saw as clutter. But I believe the long-term, sustainable protection of the environment is best served by building a broad consensus -- so no group goes off nursing a grudge."

Even back then, more than 10 years ago, Dan's vision reached ahead to themes we see in the Obama campaign and administration. More from Utne in 1995:

Kemmis sees his new politics as just one part of a broad movement across the country and the world. "Even in the face of violence and decay, I believe a powerful healing is going on," he says. "You can see it in the movement toward mediation rather than litigation, in neighborhood organizing, and even in a new willingness here in the West to work out disputes over water rights. It's nothing less than a reclaiming of the human capacity for cooperation."

Dan has also written extensively about how he would introduce flexibility to managing federal lands in the West, an idea he calls "Region 7," which he's brought up in High Country News and elsewhere:

The significance of the name "Region 7" derives from the unusual configuration of Forest Service regions. As a result of a 1965 national review of Forest Service management and organization, Region 7 of the Forest Service was split into Regions 8 and 9. Region 7 in effect disappeared. The Region 7 designation has not been used since.

(I propose) that Region 7 be given new life, but not as a normal, geographically contiguous region. Instead, the resurrected Region 7 would house experimental projects on national forest lands across the country. Such a framework would allow innovative solutions to be tested and evaluated at sites throughout the national forest system, and encourage agency managers and public land stakeholders to develop better management and governance options than those that currently exist.

… Perhaps the strongest element of Region 7 is its emphasis on adaptiveness and its incorporation of adaptive management concepts into the governance of public lands. Adaptive management derives from an acknowledgement that, while ecosystems are appropriate units for public land planning, those ecosystems are too complex and unpredictable to be managed according to traditional planning models. Ecosystems simply will not conform themselves to 5- or 10-year plans. Conceding this, adaptive managers start with the best-informed management plan they can devise, knowing at the outset that applying it to a living ecosystem will produce unexpected or unintended results. As those results begin to accrue, the adaptive manager revisits the plan, adjusting it to the bottomless complexity of the ecosystem in question.

Region 7 would apply this adaptive approach not simply to public land management, but to public land governance as well. It recognizes the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of providing an immediate and final fix to every problem within this very complex management system, and instead concentrates on building adaptability into the system. The value of such an experimental approach is that it does not attempt to change the entire public lands system at once, but recognizes problems and invites and tests innovative solutions in a few carefully chosen settings.

… The Region 7 projects should test a broad range of models. The types of experiments tested would depend largely on what public land stakeholders are currently attempting or would like the opportunity to try in their own communities. The following list is not meant to prescribe the models that might be tested, but simply to suggest the possible range and variety of such models, which might include:

- Trust Model: The public land in question would be managed by a board of trustees, pursuant to a binding trust instrument;

- Budgetary Incentives: After some initial period of federal budgetary support, the experimental area would be expected to generate most or all of its own funds;

- Collaborative Planning Model: A collaborative body would write a management plan for the area, while existing public land managers would be charged with implementing it;

- Collaborative Governance Model: A collaborative group would be empowered to write and oversee implementation of the management plan.

Dan has a plan for creating Region 7, which could be used on BLM land as well as national forests (good closing line at the end):

The first step toward creating Region 7 would be to conduct a national competition for the selection of experimental projects to test new models of management or governance. A "blue ribbon" commission would be organized to solicit proposals for alternative approaches to public land management and governance, select promising projects, and guide the implementation process. The projects selected would make up the new Region 7.

To encourage the development and careful testing of alternative approaches to national forest management, enabling legislation for Region 7 should:

- Establish a national competition for selecting promising projects;

- Establish a broadly representative advisory committee to guide project selection and monitoring;

- Emphasize the experimental, adaptive nature of projects;

- Authorize and encourage projects across a range of administrative and geographic scales;

- Require monitoring of both process and outcome against established baselines;

- Require a cumulative record of project activities and outcomes; and

- Ensure broad dissemination of lessons learned.

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