A Lively Exchange with the Interior Department


To the Editor:

The Dec. 6 feature article, "Taking the West Forward," contains a thoughtful overview of issues facing the West but it grossly mischaracterizes the Bush Administration's policies and programs.

The article states the administration has "opened the region's resources to development" when in fact public lands, at the direction of Congress, have been open for years. More typically, this administration has restricted development in previously open sensitive areas.

Secondly, the assertion that this administration has "dramatically reduced public involvement in decision making" is untrue. A new Bush Administration policy specifically engages local governments and state agencies to be full cooperators in our planning efforts. As a result, county and state agencies will play more active roles than ever. This is one of Interior Secretary Gale Norton's highest priorities and its effects are being seen in communities across the country.

Regarding renewables, it may interest readers to know that renewable energy development is also a high priority of the Interior Department. We have issued more than 60 wind and 200 geothermal permits since 2001 compared to just 9 and 20 in the last 4 years of the previous administration, and we plan to do more. I would hardly call that a "half-hearted commitment."

Such misrepresentations imply that citizens must proceed despite this administration, rather than in concert with it. I propose a different approach. Let's work together to forge what the author calls a "collective commitment to finding a way of living in the West that works." When the dust settles, you may find that our goals are very similar indeed.

Rebecca W. Watson

Rebecca W. Watson is the Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Department of the Interior.


Rebecca -

In her 2003 settlement with then-Utah Gov. Leavitt, Interior Secretary Norton, in one fell swoop, stripped approximately 4.4 million acres of citizen-proposed wilderness of protection. West-wide, the settlement has lead to stripping protection from millions more acres. At our last count, the BLM had leased 148,000 acres of this land for mineral development. I could go on, but I think the Utah settlement alone calls into serious question your claim that "More typically, this administration has restricted development in previously open sensitive areas."

As for the issue of public involvement, I would point you to the story of the Forest Service's Content Analysis Team, which was outsourced to private contractors despite widespread belief that it was the best in the business when it came to analyzing public comments. To throw out an example from your department, Interior deep-sixed a plan to protect Colorado's Roan Plateau that had the support of a wide range of local people - and chose instead to punt the issue to a future administration. I salute your efforts to involve local and state governments, but on balance, I believe public participation has declined sharply in the past four years.

While the Bush administration may have issued more permits than its predecessor for wind and geothermal projects, I don't believe that this is a legitimate measure of its commitment to renewables. A better measure might be to compare the amount of money the administration has helped pour into oil, gas and coal development vs. wind, solar, etc. I don't have those numbers close at hand, but they clearly show that renewables are an afterthought for both the administration and for many members of Congress.

I'm glad to hear that you are planning to work with Westerners to find a more sustainable future, and I would love to include your voice and views in the paper. But I can't, in good conscience, print your letter unless you can convince me that it has some truth to it.

I would be happy to look at any evidence you can provide, or to talk to you personally on the phone.

Greg Hanscom, editor
High Country News


Dear Mr. Hanscom:

This is to respond to your letter of January 20 questioning the truthfulness of my recent "Letter to the Editor."

It may interest you to know that I have been a loyal subscriber to High Country News since Tom Bell created it more than 30 years ago in Lander, Wyoming. I have read the paper as a westerner and a lawyer in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Washington, D.C. For many years, High Country News served a unique and very important function in bringing a thoughtful and balanced perspective to Western environmental and legislative issues. Since the recent departure of editor Ed Marston, however, the paper¹s balance has suffered a steady decline. I am not the only subscriber to have made this observation. Now, it has come to this: a censoring of letters to the editor who do not agree with the views of the High Country News editor, and in this case, a gratuitous insult to a public official. This approach reflects the tactics of an activist rather than those of a journalist. We may disagree philosophically, but that does not mean my statements are untrue. The letter I submitted was an honest attempt to add a different perspective -- that of the current Administration -- sorely lacking in both the article referenced and in other High Country News articles and editorials; in other words, it was an attempt to add some balance.

I will clarify below the points made in your response to my letter. These elucidations were not included in the original letter in the interest of brevity, a requirement for "Letters to the Editor," that is rather restrictive. As you know, while articles run thousands of words, letters attempting to odd insight to them are limited to 250 words or less.

Renewable Energy: According to your "belief," the best measure of the government¹s commitment to renewable resources is not in numbers of permits issued but rather in the amount of taxpayer money poured into it. We disagree on this. Throwing money at renewable energy will not provide more green energy unless and until real obstacles in processes and permitting are overcome. At Interior, we have worked long and hard to smooth the permitting process so that energy companies will have reasonable assurances that their considerable investments in renewable energy development will not get hung up in bureaucratic red tape. Some examples: I have appointed a full-time position on my staff devoted solely to working on improving renewable energy processes and coordinating industry issues with various Interior agencies. We are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help inform renewable energy developers up front of what will be required of them to minimize impacts and protect migratory birds when siting wind development projects. The Departments of Interior and Energy recently conducted a thorough analysis of renewable energy production potential on all public lands. Based on this, the Interior Department is moving aggressively to plan for development in high potential areas. To this end, the Bureau of Land Management is analyzing comments on a programmatic wind energy EIS to address a broad range of development issues on public lands. I also announced a new policy for commercial solar development on public lands in October, and have directed field offices to address all forms of potential renewable energy development in all land use plan revisions.

The past administration might have been long on rhetoric, but they were short on action. As I pointed out in my earlier letter, this Administration has demonstrated its commitment to renewable energy through action. We have issued more than 60 wind and 200 geothermal permits since 2001 compared to just 9 and 20 in the last 4 years of the previous administration. We also proposed new legislation to allow the Minerals Management Service to begin leasing and permitting offshore wind facilities in federal waters, which was part of the Energy bill. No agency currently has the authority to do this. On biomass, we have been aggressive at building biomass utilization into our forest stewardship and fuels reduction plans. The BLM recently issued a biomass utilization policy aimed at developing uses for biomass removed in thinning and fuels reduction. The Administration fought hard to get stewardship contracting authority from Congress so the BLM could offer biomass material in exchange for fuels reduction work. This fledgling authority produced over 27,000 tons of biomass from BLM lands in 2004.

Others outside of government have recognized Interior¹s record of promoting renewable energy production. Renewable energy expert Scott Sklar commended the Interior Department in his recent article, "A Look at Bush Administration Policies Regarding Renewable Energy." Under the heading "Good News," he recognized Interior as a "strong backer" of renewable energy, writing that "Interior Secretary Norton led a very high profile program to remove barriers for renewable energy on federal lands" (Renewable Energy Access, Oct. 21, 2004).

In addition, this administration supported and enacted production tax credits for renewable energy development to encourage investment. The next steps really depend on industry, not on more federal subsidies. Perhaps this is a fundamental philosophy on which we disagree.

For more information on the Department's renewable energy accomplishments, I would encourage you to review our Web site at: www.doi.gov/initiatives/renewable_energy.pdf

Utah Settlement: There has been much misinformation surrounding the Utah settlement you referred to, but your assertion that, "in her 2003 settlement with then-Utah Gov. Leavitt, Interior Secretary Norton, in one fell swoop, stripped approximately 4.4 million acres of citizen-proposed wilderness of protection" is a gross misstatement. The fact is, the legal status of those lands was never changed by any formal land use plan decision or legislative action. Furthermore, the term, "citizen-proposed wilderness" belies the very kind of truth to which you attach so much import. "Citizen-proposed," in this context is a misnomer; a more accurate term might be "advocacy-group proposed." The Wilderness Act depends on citizens to advocate their intentions to Congress. Only Congress can designate a wilderness area; advocacy groups cannot dictate that agencies manage certain lands as wilderness any more than advocacy groups can dictate that agencies manage certain areas only for off-road vehicles. Such management decisions are made through an open land use planning process or by a formal act of Congress. Congressional delegations must work through the Congress to propose wilderness designations based on constituent participation -- the ultimate form of "public participation" and "citizen proposal." Our actions fully comply with this Act of Congress.

This administration has supported wilderness designations through the legislative process. I have testified in support of legislation to designate wilderness in both Nevada and New Mexico. The last Congress enacted the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act with the Administration¹s support. I would emphasize also that the 3.3 million acres of federal public land in Utah designated pursuant to the Wilderness Act as Wilderness Study Areas, like all WSAs, remain off limits to oil and gas leasing (except in the few areas that have preexisting leases within their boundaries).

Restricting Development: Let me clarify the statement, "More typically, this administration has restricted development in previously open sensitive areas." Most of BLM's land use plans were written in the 1980s or before, and called for oil and gas development over entire land use planning areas. As we revise these plans, we are closing some areas to development altogether, and requiring strict stipulations on developers in open areas. In other words, we are increasing restrictions on development. Our plan for Otero Mesa is an example. Previously, nearly 2 million acres were open for leasing; our recent record of decision closes more than 130,000 acres to leasing altogether, and would only allow 1,589 acres of surface disturbance on the remaining 1.85 million acres. In the long-term, only 860 acres could be occupied, which is only four hundredths of one percent of the total area. In sensitive grassland areas, no more than five percent of the grassland surface may be disturbed at any one time and developers must adhere to some of the strictest reclamation stipulations on record. This record of decision and environmental impact statement are available for review on the BLM Web site at:

You may be interested to know that industry representatives also take issue with our planning approaches, as evidenced in the attached article from Public Land News, January 21, 2005, titled, "Industry sees bias against oil and gas in BLM RMPs." They feel our restrictions have gone too far.

Roan Plateau: Regarding the Roan Plateau, we have worked diligently with local government cooperators, including affected counties, towns and the State Department of Natural Resources, to develop a Draft Resource Management Plan that would meet the greatest number of community concerns while still implementing federal law and offering protection to the resources. During these discussions, it became clear that not all residents supported designating the top of the plateau as wilderness and many wanted continued motorized access for hunting and other recreational uses. Consequently, the draft plan includes a wide range of management alternatives ranging from no new oil and gas leasing (including the lands on the top of the plateau) to a more development oriented alternative. No final decisions have been made by the BLM, and nothing has been "deep sixed," to use your words. Indeed, local communities continue to elect to join BLM as cooperating agencies on this plan. (The Glenwood Springs City Council voted to become a cooperating agency on January 20, 2005.) We will continue to work with cooperating agencies as we review the public comments and develop a final management strategy for the portion of the Roan Plateau formerly known as the Naval Oil Shale Reserve. We are accepting comments through March 4 and would welcome those from your readers. For more information on this effort, please visit the BLM Web site at:

While you personally may not like these planning approaches, they do represent the result of extensive public participation. Our decisions respond to what we are hearing, not just from environmentalists or developers, but from the greater community of people who are affected by Interior Department activities. This is how a democracy works.

If what you yourself describe as speculation -- that public participation has declined -- is true (and I personally do not believe it is), I hope that you will use High Country News to encourage citizens to become more active rather than as a vehicle to alienate those who might otherwise join us in a "collective commitment to finding a way of living in the West that works." After all, this is what the author has asked for in the High Country News article to which I responded.

Thank you for your gracious offer to publish my letter if it could be shown to "have some truth to it." I look forward to seeing it soon in High Country News.

Rebecca W. Watson
Assistant Secretary
Land and Minerals Management


Dear Assistant Secretary Watson,

We appreciate your invitation to Westerners to "work together," and we salute the many positive efforts Interior is undertaking to protect wild places and involve the public in land-management decisions. We also recognize that there are many, many employees within the land-management agencies who work hard every day to safeguard the public lands and the democratic process. We do not believe, however, that HCN has mischaracterized the Bush administration¹s environmental record. In the interest of accuracy, we would like to present the following facts.

The Interior Department has made commendable progress in clearing the way for renewable energy projects on public lands, but the administration¹s overall commitment to renewables has been weak.

  • You quote renewable energy expert Scott Sklar praising the Department of Interior, but in the same article, Sklar gives the Bush administration a "C-minus or maybe a D-plus" for its renewable energy policies. Sklar further says that "Senior White House energy policymakers seem to marginalize renewable energy and energy efficiency."


  • President Bush's 2002 budget proposal cut spending on all renewable energy research by 37 percent, or $190 million. For 2003, he proposed adding $21 million to renewables research, but half of that was meant to go toward hydropower and hydrogen energy. Meanwhile, he wanted to cut funding for solar energy and biomass by two percent apiece and geothermal energy by three percent. His 2004 proposal gave renewables an increase of $61 million ­ however, $60 million went to his hydrogen fuel initiative, while proven technologies such as solar and biomass got negligible increases, and wind and geothermal spending were cut. For 2005 he proposed cutting solar by $3 million and biofuels by $14 million.


  • Bush's 2006 budget proposal has a few bright spots: It would eliminate subsidies for oil and gas research and development, and would provide production tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency. However, it would also cut solar energy programs by more than $1.1 million and biomass programs by $30.5 million. The president's hydrogen power initiative would see an increase of more than 5 percent, but 90 percent of that hydrogen is slated to come from coal and nuclear energy sources rather than from renewable sources.


  • The production tax credits you refer to have expired and then been reinstated several times during Bush¹s tenure. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, this has caused an inefficient "boom and bust" cycle in wind power projects.


The Bush administration has pushed to grant mining, timber and energy companies access to millions of acres of public land that previously were protected or off-limits.

  • Within months of entering office in 2001, Interior Secretary Gale Norton reversed rules put into place by her predecessor that were intended to make mining more environmentally responsible (HCN, 11/19/01, "Mining reform gets the shaft"). Norton nixed a rule that would have allowed federal agencies to deny permits for mines that cause "substantial and irreparable harm." She retained a provision requiring mines to post clean-up bonds, but in the first test of this rule, the Bureau of Land Management allowed a mining company to post a bond that fell far short of what the Environmental Protection Agency said would be adequate (HCN, 8/30/04, "Will a mining reform victory hold water in Nevada?").

  • In 2001, the Department of Agriculture, faced with a lawsuit brought by timber companies, rewrote the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The rule, established after 600 public meetings and 1.6 million public comments, would have put 58.5 million acres of national forest off-limits to logging, mining and drilling. The new proposed rule, which will be final in May, no longer provides blanket protection for roadless areas throughout the nation. Instead, governors who want to leave protections in place for their state's roadless areas must petition the Forest Service -- a move that would require the states to conduct another round of time-consuming and expensive review processes. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, D, has called the move an "abdication of responsibility" (HCN, 8/16/04, "Feds pass roadless headache to the states").

Across the West in the past two years, 92,000 acres of roadless lands have already been leased for oil and gas development, and logging is proposed on another 17,000 acres. Dozens of additional projects are in the works that would open roadless areas to logging, drilling, and mining.

  • While the 4.4 million acres of wilderness-quality Bureau of Land Management land in Utah never had formal protection under a law or land-use plan, the previous administration gave them interim administrative protection so that Congress could decide whether to formally protect them as wilderness (HCN, 4/28/03, "Wilderness takes a massive hit"). You take issue with the term "citizen-proposed wilderness," but it¹s worth noting that the BLM itself acknowledged that at least 2.6 million of the 4.4 million acres met the Wilderness Act's requirements for wilderness protection. Since the 2003 Norton-Leavitt settlement, the BLM has leased approximately 148,000 acres of wilderness-quality land in Utah and Colorado for oil, gas and coal development. And as the agency updates its land-use plans across the West, hundreds of thousands more acres of wilderness-quality land will be opened to oil and gas leasing, effectively preventing them from ever being formally designated as wilderness. The draft land-use plan for the BLM's Vernal, Utah field office, alone, proposes opening 275,000 wilderness-quality acres to energy companies.

  • Regarding Otero Mesa in New Mexico, you say that "previously, nearly 2 million acres were open for leasing; our recent record of decision closes more than 130,000 acres." This statement is misleading. Those 2 million acres were open prior to 1998, when the BLM called a halt to all leasing on Otero Mesa until it could complete an environmental impact statement. The BLM¹s final plan, released in January 2005, opens all but 124,000 acres to drilling, despite strong opposition from the public and from state officials, including Gov. Bill Richardson (HCN, 3/29/04, "New Mexicans take a stand against oil and gas"). "On the one hand, they want to get the state's opinion," said Ned Farquhar, the governor's energy and environmental policy advisor. "But on Otero Mesa, we gave them (our opinion and a constructive alternative) and (the BLM) rejected it without even reading it, as far as we can tell."


The Bush administration has consistently reduced and undermined public participation, whether by citizens, groups, or local and state governments.

  • The administration¹s Healthy Forests Initiative, although it provides opportunities for protecting forest communities and restoring forests, also expands the use of "categorical exclusions" to exempt large logging operations (up to 1,000 acres) from National Environmental Policy Act review and public input. It also prevents the public from appealing "hazardous fuels reduction" projects (HCN, 12/8/03, "Forest protection on the honor system"). Categorical exclusions can't be used in "extraordinary circumstances," such as when an action would affect endangered species habitat or archaeological sites. But last year the Forest Service changed its NEPA regulations to narrow the scope of "extraordinary."

  • Forest Service regulations adopted in December allow Forest Supervisors to categorically exclude new forest plans, as well as plan revisions and amendments, from NEPA analysis. The new regulations also prevent the public from appealing final plans. In 2003 the Bush administration also issued changes to the Appeals Reform Act, limiting the public's right to appeal many land management decisions and no longer requiring that work stops on a project while it's being appealed (HCN, 11/24/03, "Our publicly-owned forests are being subverted").

  • The Forest Service's Content Analysis Team was widely believed to be the best in the business when it came to reading and evaluating public comment letters. But the team's work was outsourced to private contractors after team members disagreed with administration higher-ups who asked them to minimize the appearance of controversy in their reports and stop accounting for overall public support or opposition (HCN, 4/26/04, "Outsourced").

  • On the Roan Plateau, the Bureau of Land Management developed a draft resource management plan for energy development. Citizens, businesses, and local governments supported an alternative in the plan ("Alternative D") that would have kept oil and gas leasing off the top of the plateau. In September 2003, however, the BLM removed Alternative D from its draft plan (HCN, 9/01/03, "BLM sinks local input to drill Roan Plateau"). In November 2004, the BLM released an amended draft plan containing a new "preferred alternative" that would open the entire area to oil and gas leasing, deferring leasing on top of the plateau until 80 percent of the wells beneath the cliffs have been drilled. While BLM estimates that will occur in about 16 years, local environmental groups say it could happen within 6 to 8 years.

  • And the most recent example: In February, a high-level political appointee in the Agriculture Department eliminated rules that would have protected water quality and lynx habitat on Colorado¹s White River National Forest. David Tenny, deputy undersecretary for natural resources, overrode parts of the White River Forest Plan, which was five years in the making and attracted more than 14,000 citizen comments. The Denver Post called the move "an egregious example of the Bush administration¹s fraudulent claims about heeding science, local control and public input."


All this is not to say that there is no progress being made in public-land management and environmental protection. We recognize that many public servants are working hard to protect the West's land, air, wildlife and communities -- though, in many cases, they do so because of their own morals, ethics and inner drive, not because of any leadership from Washington, D.C.

Here's hoping that the next four years of Bush administration policies offer a brighter future for the West, and a stark contrast to the last four years.

- The editors of High Country News

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