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Know the West

Save the middle ground: Hug a radical


Here’s a message for all the "radical centrists" out there, those who have decided that the best way to manage the public lands is to sit down at the table with ranchers, off-roaders and everyone in between, to come up with a plan everyone agrees on: The next time you run into a radical, thank her for preparing your table.

It’s something that hit me recently, as I listened to a centrist colleague berate an anti-grazing activist for his alleged lack of a clue. "He needs to get out and travel a little," said my colleague.

But this centrist neglected a few facts. First, the anti-grazing activist has done plenty of travelling, and seen plenty of public rangeland that’s been chewed to within an inch of its life by cattle and sheep. And second, anti-grazing activists and their ilk have probably done as much for "consensus" efforts as anyone. It sounds trite, but without the extremes, there would be no center.

Take Idaho’s Owyhee region. Ranchers and environmentalists in the Owyhee haven’t gotten together because they’re looking for a social opportunity. These people are spending untold hours at the negotiating table because the alternative isn’t pretty: Barring some sort of compromise, ranchers know that lawsuits from the cow-free crowd will be the last nail in their coffins. At the same time, environmentalists know that the Bush administration may open wilderness study areas to off-road vehicle riders, unchecked grazing and God knows what else.

Calling it "consensus" is probably a stretch; "hard bargaining" might be closer to the truth. Environmentalists want to protect wilderness. Ranchers want to keep their place on the public lands. Both sides realize that with a little give-and-take, they may be able to accomplish both of their goals.

These centrists have reason to gripe about the meddling radicals. Even as the hard-liners on both sides have helped create the middle ground in the Owyhee and elsewhere, they are now doing their darnedest to tear it apart. Meanwhile, middle-of-the-roaders are getting little support from up high.

When it comes to the public lands, the Bush administration talks a good line about wanting locals to make decisions. But in reality, the administration has been scornful of everything but corporate energy development. Not only has it trashed decades of work identifying and studying potential wilderness areas, it has also sunk collaborative efforts. The casualties include a proposal that would have brought grizzly bears back to the Selway and Bitterroot mountains on the Idaho-Montana border, and a plan for energy development on Colorado’s Roan Plateau that might have left a little too much of the place untouched.

So here’s a message for all the hard-liners out there: It might behoove you to turn the other way and let some of these "consensus" deals pass through. They are our best chance at getting some land protected before we’re all pushing up daisies, and the Bush administration has unleashed the oil companies on our gravesites.