Beyond the Revolution

The struggle for the public lands is ending. Now what happens? Will the Interior West remain a rogue region, or will it choose to rejoin America?

  • Cartoon: Bruce Babbitt declares another national monument

    Malcolm Wells
  • Cartoon of Babbitt pushing wheelbarrow of American flags

    Malcolm Wells
  • Ed Marston

    Cindy Wehling photo

In the wake of the stunning 1994 victory by Newt Gingrich and his allies, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt shuttled endlessly between Washington, D.C., and Denver, and then spent hours sitting at various negotiating roundtables, watching paint not just dry but blister and peel as ranchers and environmentalists attempted to settle their quarrel over the West's public lands.

Although he was criticized for wasting his time at these sessions, Denver was probably a better place for him to wait out the siege of the nation's capitol than the Interior building.

Now the waiting is over, and Bruce Babbitt is once again shuttling between Washington, D.C., and the Western United States. This time he is no passive observer of someone else's process. This time he comes West bearing a big stick and a small carrot. The stick is the Antiquities Act of 1906, and a threat to use it in a dozen or more places in the West to create national monuments, as President Bill Clinton did at Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and more recently in Arizona and California. The carrot is a promise not to create another national monument if local interests and their congressional representatives come up with and pass a bill to protect the land (HCN, 11/22/99: Go tell it on the mountain).

To add insult to the multiple injuries Babbitt is visiting on the West, Clinton, acting through Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, a Babbitt protégé, has locked up an additional 90,000 square miles of roadless land while the Forest Service studies ways to keep it roadless (HCN, 11/8/99: A new road for the public lands).

How has the Interior West reacted to these massive affronts? Various cowboy-hatted Paul Reveres are riding about raising the alarm. Shovels are being collected in significant numbers. And a national forest supervisor has been driven from office in Nevada.

Otherwise, the war between extractive interests and the environmental movement for control of the Interior West's public lands is drawing to a close. The timber era, the cattle era, the mainstem big-dam era, the wise-use era are ending. An immense landscape is going from one set of uses to another set of uses, from one way of life to another, in an astoundingly short time.

The transformation is occurring so quickly, and in so many places, that the conquered lands have not yet been occupied. Only Babbitt seems to understand what has happened, and so he has traveled ceaselessly from place to place, claiming 50,000 acres here, 150,000 acres there.

It is one thing to make these claims from Washington, D.C., as Clinton and Dombeck did with the roadless forest lands, or even as Babbitt does by coming to the West, to personally plant flags on the conquered lands. But the difficult task of administering these lands in new ways is being left to underfunded and demoralized federal agencies, struggling, amid often hostile communities, to understand what their new world looks like.

Dombeck, for example, takes command of 90,000 square miles, but he does it from the top, without the understanding or cooperation of his agency, most of whose employees wish they had never heard the word "roadless."

The agency with the best chance to make the changes is the Army Corps of Engineers, which is ponderously moving toward the destruction of dams it built only a few decades ago. When the first dam on the Snake River is breached, it will be clear to even the die-hards that one era has ended and another has begun.

How was an always touchy, seemingly sovereign region transformed? Why is the West sitting passively while this enormous change is wrought? The short answer is that the economy and the environmentalists, not necessarily in that order, have reworked the region. The West's myths and politics and power rest on control of the grass, gold, trees and rushing water of the public lands, and that control is just about over.

The environmental movement fought the extractive industry's control of the public lands on the ground, through endless appeals and lawsuits that challenged everything from the construction of billion-dollar dams to trivial changes in grazing permits for individual ranchers. Just as significantly, it fought nationally. The Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society and even the Nature Conservancy went over the heads of Western land users and elected officials to the 225 million Americans who do not live in the Interior West.

Over decades, working through thousands of magazine and newspaper articles and books and millions of pieces of direct mail, urban and suburban Americans were made aware that they owned immense tracts of land in the West.

The land, environmental groups told them, was simultaneously pristine and trashed. It was virgin and whore. It was the hope of America - a vast Statue of Liberty holding out its arms to the cramped masses in the cities and suburbs - and it was a helpless heroine lashed to the tracks of heedless Western development.

Those decades of work have paid off in the courts, in the arenas that hear appeals of federal actions, and even in attracting new breeds to the public-land management offices. But the work bore its most spectacular fruit in the midst of the Gingrich Revolution, when enough Midwestern and Eastern Republicans joined the Democrats in the U.S. House to prevent the rollback of laws like the Endangered Species Act and to stop the authorization of additional damage to the region's rivers and forests and grasslands. That political coalition defeated what may have been the West's final bid to continue to run the public lands as if they belonged only to the region.

It is one thing to achieve a victory with the help of an aroused national constituency. It is another to govern the land day in and day out. And here, Clinton-Babbitt - or is it Babbitt-Clinton? - are severely handicapped. The national public pays only sporadic attention to the West's public lands - when wolves are reintroduced, when Yellowstone is diminished by air pollution from snowmobiles, when buffalo are slaughtered.

But those who live near the public lands pay them full-time attention. And even with the flood of newcomers who have moved to the West - people who have still not figured out what is at stake in their new homeland - that attention is implacably hostile to the goals of this Democratic administration. The hostility is backed by a bloc of Western senators - men from Utah, Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho - who have negative agendas - blocking the administration on many fronts.

Most important, these senators are starving the land-management agencies, turning personnel into people of paperwork who rarely get to visit the land, let alone control it.

Paralyzing the agencies and tormenting their top bureaucrats is fun for Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and their colleagues. But it is not as much fun as the clear-cutting of forests, the mining of gold and the damming of rivers.

But those are the agendas they can no longer move. They have been reduced to obstructionism. And even here they fail now and again. They couldn't keep the wolves out. Babbitt every now and then gets to whack a small dam. And the move to dismantle the four Snake River dams has gotten further than most of us would have dreamed possible even two years ago.

By comparison with its senators, the West's governors have no power at all. State lands are tiny compared to federal lands, and state budgets are even smaller. If the governors are to have any influence, they must be united and they must fight in the arena of ideas and public policy.

They are. With the leadership of Utah's Gov. Mike Leavitt, R, and Oregon's Gov. John Kitzhaber, D, the Western governors are forging a policy they call Enlibra. Its foundation is simple: When it comes to the public lands and the environment, broad policies are set by the federal government. But these broad policies are then to be handed over to the states and local government for implementation.

To many environmentalists, Enlibra is simply another way for the West to avoid federal supremacy over land, water and air. No doubt some of the Western governors back Enlibra for that reason. But others see Enlibra as a way to protect Western sovereignty without the doomed battle-to-the-death approach the West's senators have chosen.

The senators and governors each have their constituencies. The senators are backed by the logging and mining and oil and gas industries. The front guys of this movement are the wise-users, the sagebrush rebels, rural county governments, and the off-road vehicle users, who are well organized and who literally control the land.

But the governors also have a constituency. It is a patchwork quilt of watershed, consensus, collaboration, community-forestry and range-restoration efforts that have appeared everywhere in the West, as if by magic, starting a decade ago.

This is not a noisy group. But it is powerful in the sense that Enlibra is powerful: It is one of the few places Westerners can go to begin to negotiate their way out of endless conflict.

We are in the midst of endless conflict because the West's debate over public lands and natural resources is dominated by the principle of sovereignty. A significant part of the environmental movement believes that the public lands can be protected only if the region is denied sovereignty. Meanwhile, those who most loudly proclaim the need for the West to be sovereign usually act as if freedom will vanish if the ability to drive motorized vehicles anywhere, or to shoot a firearm anywhere, or to graze a cow anywhere is abridged.

Behind this noise lie strong arguments for some local influence over the federal lands. Everything here - municipal reservoirs, sewage treatment, forest fires, a lost hiker, garbage disposal, and certainly economies - is a federal concern, because all involve the land-management agencies, the federal courts, the Congress and the White House. While federal environmental laws affect the entire nation, the situation is more challenging in the West, where 50 percent of the land is also in federal hands.

It is not enough to simply say: "These are public lands and they must be run by federal mandate." There must be more.

This special issue of High Country News contains eight essays that explore what "more" might mean. It is the final issue in a long-running series, "The political dynamics of the Interior West." The essays are the result of inviting approximately 30 Westerners to describe the forces that will shape the West in the early 21st century.

Although the question was broad, the essays fell into a relatively narrow range. If these writers are correct, the region will be shaped by population growth, by the desire for sovereignty, by consensus-collaboration, by the forces of global capitalism, and by a mix of continentalism and regionalism. This last refers to tri-national treaties like NAFTA, which show the way toward a North American economy, accompanied by a move toward regional relationships, where, let's say, Alaska and Siberia, or Seattle and Vancouver, discover they have more in common with each other than with the political subdivisions of which they are legally a part.

Not only the West has a stake in these new arrangements and relationships. The nation is also vitally concerned. So long as this remains a rogue region, fixated on the wrongs it is suffering, we cannot become an influential adult in the eyes of the rest of the country. We will always be intent on causing trouble, and on making alliances with other troublemakers.

It is not right that a region whose landscape and wildlife and rivers symbolize America to the rest of the world should simultaneously be its most alienated region. That must be changed, and this issue of High Country News is dedicated to that change.

Note: this feature essay introduces a package of essays in this issue.

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