« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Feds targeted by louder thunder from below


SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - Met Johnson worried that no one would show up for the two-day Western Summit of conservative state legislators, county commissioners and public-land users he organized here in January.

Johnson, the leader of the so-called "Cowboy Caucus" in the Utah House of Representatives, feared the "steam might have gone out of the movement" to wrest control of the West from the federal government.

It was just the opposite. The recent election results spurred more than 500 people to crowd into a downtown hotel to listen to pep talks from sympathetic members of Congress and organize strategies to defeat grazing reform, protect state control of water rights, and preserve road rights-of-way across public land.

"There's a great difference in attitude," said Jack Barraclough, a Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, noting that changes in federal policy being discussed at the meeting are "things that people thought impossible only a few months ago."

"There's new hope that we can make a difference," said Tom Hatch, a commissioner from Utah's Garfield County.

Rep. James V. Hansen, R-Utah, received thunderous applause when he told the group: "I honestly feel that one of the most prudent things we could do is to pass legislation that turns (over) the BLM lands to the states ... I can testify, and I believe with all my heart, that the legislative bodies of the West absolutely can take as good care of the ground as the federal government and do it cheaper and better."

Ray Baum, leader of the Republican majority in the Oregon House of Representatives, said states want more than just control of the land. They want the right to set their own policies for environmental protection, endangered species, welfare, and health care.

"In 1865 we fought a war against too much states' rights. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Now we're in the middle of a quiet revolution in which the states are taking back their role from the feds."

He argued, for example, that Oregon laws protecting endangered species and regulating the timber industry should prevail on federal lands, not laws passed by Congress.

"We (the state) can protect the salmon and spotted owl, and still have timber production. The federal government just doesn't get it," said Baum.

Aubyn A. Curtiss, a Republican member of the Montana House of Representatives, said Western legislators are beginning to work together to create a "unified approach" on the state-sovereignty issue.

"We live there. Our local economies are important to us. We should have more participation in the federal decision-making process," she said.

Some 50 protesters from the Sierra Club held a brief demonstration outside the hotel during the meeting's second day. But just as the camera crews from local television stations were setting up to shoot the event, about 60 people from the summit raced out of the building carrying their own signs and held a counter-demonstration on the sidewalk.

Lawson LeGate, Southwest regional representative for the Sierra Club, led his side in chants like: "Public lands in public hands," and "Wise use or wise abuse."

Charles S. Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, responded from his group with such chants as: "What do we hate? Babbitt! What do we love? Jobs!" and "What do we want? Mining! When do we want it? Now!"

Back inside, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, warned that the "euphoria" of the recent election needs to be balanced by the "cold hard fact" that eight of the 53 the Republicans in the U.S. Senate are "very liberal." This could make it hard to pass many of the reforms sought by Western conservatives, he said.

The Salt Lake City meeting was the third Western Summit. Previous sessions were held in Phoenix and Denver.

The writer works for the Salt Lake Tribune.