New monuments: Planning by numbers

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, just before and after George W. Bush was inaugurated, when some of his Western supporters spoke openly about nullifying those 11 new national monuments created by the presidential predecessor they hated.

Enter reality, both legal and political. It turns out that the law on un-creating monuments does not exist. And to the apparent surprise of some Western Republicans, it turned out that most folks - even most Westerners - thought they were a good idea.

So in one manner or another they are here to stay. But in what manner? The presidential proclamations leave many blanks, to be filled in by the Bureau of Land Management, in whose tender care the monuments were placed.

Until late April, that care resembled what an earlier administration once called benign neglect. As various interested parties waited, the BLM and its parent Interior Department did ... well, nothing. A few quasi-official meetings were cancelled because there was nothing to discuss. The elaborate planning process required under the law could not begin until Department of Interior said "go." So nothing began.

No wonder, then, that on April 24, when Interior Secretary Gale Norton finally announced her intention "to develop plans managing the national monuments established under the Department's jurisdiction in 2000 and 2001" (that's government jargon for "Go"), the environmental fraternity expressed "cautious optimism." The optimism comes from relief that something is finally being done. The caution comes from a paucity of confidence in the folks who are doing the doing.

Nor was confidence in any way upgraded when Norton said she wanted to make "the planning process a model of how to involve the people who live and work closest to these monuments."

To those already distrustful of the Administration, that could sound rather like an intention to give the locals veto power over the final management plans. And since the locals tend to be dominated (or in some cases, intimidated) by commercial interests and/or political-psychological hostility to preservation, those final management plans could end up allowing more mining, drilling, grazing and driving than the resources can tolerate.

The driving might be more of a problem than the drilling. Only one of the new monuments - the Canyons of the Ancients in southwestern Colorado - has extensive petroleum deposits. But most of them are regularly visited by all-terrain vehicle drivers, and in the case of the Cascade-Siskiyou Monument in Oregon, by recreational miners who bring their own bulldozers.

Adena Cook, the public-lands director for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, which champions the cause of mechanized recreators, says her organization "will be working to keep open" the roads and trails its members now use. The Coalition will not, however, seek rules allowing off-road vehicles to wander all over the monuments.

"Oh, heavens no," she says. "All use needs to be managed. All that needs to be evaluated on a site-specific basis."

None of this is likely to satisfy environmentalists convinced that even the existing level of zipping and zooming degrades the values for which the monuments were established. Nor are they likely to be comforted by Cook's insistence that the monument decision-making "has to be locally based."

This could depend on how one defines "local." In Montana, for instance, some of the neighboring ranchers, gas speculators, and motorized river-rafters appear unhappy about the new Missouri River Breaks National Monument northeast of Great Falls. But polls leave little doubt that most Montanans are all for it.

In fact, despite the conservationist chorus of complaints - that the public comment "scoping" periods are too short, that the public meetings might be held in remote areas hard for their supporters to reach, that the Administration pays them no mind - political and legal realities might still combine to provide the new monuments with ample protection.

The law does not give BLM complete discretion, and federal workers tend to take their jobs seriously. So, for instance, when the preliminary management statement for the Canyons of the Ancients Monument in Colorado holds that "the area will be managed ... so as not to create any new impacts that would interfere with the proper care and management of the objects protected by the designation," it's reasonable to assume that the BLM's draft management plan will reflect that approach.

Of course, the professionals in the National Park Service called for banning snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, a judgment politicians in the Bush administration seem intent on sabotaging. But these politicians are practicing dumb politics, as some Republican strategists concede (though not for publication). The monument process that Gale Norton just began will take about two years, meaning that final decisions will come in mid-2004, months before the next Presidential election. Bush's approval rating remains high, but it is slipping. On no subject is he rated lower than on environmental policy.

So how is it in his interest to pick yet another fight with the conservation community, even over one of the esoteric environmental issues?

It isn't. Adena Cook says the Blue Ribbon Coalition speaks for some 600,000 Americans. Almost 50 million Americans visited a national monument last year. As the late, great, Richard J. Daley said, the first thing a politician has to learn to do is count

Jon Margolis covers Washington, D.C., from his perch in Barton, Vermont.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Jon Margolis

High Country News Classifieds
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....