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Know the West

Don’t expect Washington to lead the West


It’s election season, and President Bush is using the West as a political game piece. He’s promising to up the timber cut on the national forests and increase oil and gas development, all in the name of jobs and national security. In reality, of course, he’s earning points with his industry supporters, but doing little to help the region toward a sustainable and prosperous future.

To be fair, Bill Clinton also used the West for political ends. Clinton unveiled the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument just before the 1996 elections, winning praise from environmentalists nationally, even though he sent some Utahns through the roof. (Needless to say, Utah wasn’t a swing state.)

In presidential politics, this seems to be the West’s fate, as Ed Quillen writes on page 17, but it’s getting old. I recently interviewed a Packwood, Wash., logger named John Squires, a guy who is as proud of the three-foot bar on his chain saw as he is dismayed about the decline of his hometown’s economy. He sees it very clearly:

"The left says (to its campaign contributors), ‘We need to save the trees, give us money,’ and the right says, ‘They’re going to destroy jobs, give us money,’ " said Squires. "Every party has said they’re going to help our communities, and no party has."

In this election, Squires isn’t counting on one presidential candidate or the other to save the day. Instead, he’s joined with local environmentalists, union members and American Indians to promote a plan to thin second-growth forest plantations while steering clear of the last old growth — even though the Bush administration has tried mightily to open that old growth to logging.

"Let’s not let the people in Washington, D.C., or the courts, decide," he says. "I hope we can decide what it is that we’re going to do, and then go, as a united front, to our politicians and ask them to help out."

And that, it seems, is the challenge facing Westerners today: to take our collective vision for the region to Washington — a vision that includes landscape-scale conservation and an economy based on restoring our forests, rivers and rangelands. We need to get our politicians following us, for a change, rather than the national party agenda.

In places, it’s already happening: In the Northwest’s forests, for example, and in Idaho, where ranchers and environmentalists, Democrats and Republicans, are working to protect wilderness areas while keeping livestock on the land. The West has decided it wants to be more than a political game piece, and it’s about time. We’ll be less apt to get whipsawed again the next time the White House changes hands.