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Know the West

The West's power game

The West is caught between congressional representatives beholden to resource industries, and federal officials with a conservation agenda. Can we find a middle ground?


Note: this essay is part of a package of articles in this print edition speculating about the future of the West as a cultural region.

When the United States pulled out of its holdings on the Panama Canal, retreated from the Philippines and chose not to welcome in Quebec during its drive for independence, this country slowly chose not to ape European colonialism. We should not take this rejection for granted: At the turn of the 19th century, we were headed that way.

That choice will have far-ranging consequences for this country's remaining outposts. We will, I think, eventually see Alaska achieve independence or come close to it. And possibly Hawaii, too. The West, for its part, is too closely tied to the country to become a nation of its own. Its challenge will be to find some middle ground between sovereign and colony.

In Hawaii, once we acknowledge an equivalence between the Polynesians and the American Indians, the way in which we acquired the islands will become even less defensible than the way we acquired the site for the Panama Canal.

There is another problem. There is no way Hawaii can stay within our rules of private property and due process and open markets without being acquired piecemeal by Japanese corporations and individuals. Construction of the infinite golf course is about to resume. Hawaii may have to become independent if it is not to become a Japanese possession.

Alaska isn't being bought up by its Siberian neighbors, but it can't be governed indefinitely from Washington, D.C., for the same reason our forebears declared independence from Great Britain: It cuts against human nature.

Unforeseeable until it was on us, the rise of multinational economic entities, symbolized just now by the World Trade Organization, may cause a yielding by nations to economic forces. Those forces may impel British Columbia's Victoria district and Alaska's North Slope, together with the Siberia-Kamchatka region across the Bering Strait, to escape their respective national cookie cutters and somehow come together. Rule writers for the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies represent the well-intentioned past. But these regulatory processes are inadequate to the task they've been given.

The status of federal lands in the West of the Lower 48 will also evolve. We who live here are caught between members of Congress beholden to resource industries operating in the copper-collar tradition pioneered by Anaconda in Montana, and bureaucrats operating in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition.

The need is for some local control, but where and how the lines of authority over public lands get plugged into elected local and state governments is just beginning to get serious discussion. How federal laws against resource rape and species ruin are to be honored while introducing direct local competence into the administering process - that's a hard question.

But answers are beginning to appear. The career-long behavior of Idaho's U.S. Sen. Larry Craig - a member of Congress since 1981 - typifies the snug relationship inland West lawmakers have with the forest, mining, livestock and water-and-power establishment. Yet, at long last, in 1999, along with Alaska's Rep. Don Young (imagine one congressman representing a constituency that sprawls across four time zones), Craig budged.

In awkward partnership with Oregon's Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, Craig and Young began writing legislation to do three things:

  • Uncouple a given year's timber sales from revenue sharing with local government and schools, so locals are no longer whipsawed by federal timber-sale decisions;
  • Commit to a fixed annual appropriation for the Forest Service so that the short-term logging royalties no longer wag the dog; and
  • Find a formal mechanism for local representation in federal land-use and habitat decisions.

It's not a great bill, and it probably won't go anywhere (HCN, 12/20/99: Counties grab for control of national forests), but it's a start, and an encouraging one. It's the kind of start we saw 10 years ago, when environmentalists and ranchers began talking about range restoration.

The only reason a format can be fashioned more easily in the West than between the Irish Republican Army and the Ulstermen is that we're starting earlier in the conflict, before the hatred and bitterness really dig in. We're also fortunate that we don't live on an island, and so the losers at each step don't have to jump into the ocean.

The key words in reaching accommodation in communities and the front ranges come from leaders who convince not through eloquence, but with well-timed dispatches of "shut up, you, and listen" to what another side is saying.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Perry Swisher