D.C. and the West: Worlds apart

  • Greg Hanscom


Out here in the West, under the blazing blue sky and hulking mountains, Washington, D.C., can seem like a different planet. Taken as a whole, the stories in this issue of High Country News suggest that’s not far from the truth.

The cover story is about Richard Pombo, a California Republican who is charging into his seventh term in Congress, and his second as the powerful boss of the House Resources Committee. A late-in-coming sagebrush rebel, he’s looking more like a potted plant these days, nurtured by the oil industry, agribusiness and developers.

Eleven times in the past 12 years, Pombo has tried to obliterate the Endangered Species Act, which he calls a "broken" law that stomps private property rights. Eleven times, he has failed. Nonetheless, he’s winding up for a 12th attempt, which will probably crash and burn like the others. This, despite the fact that moderate reform of the act is not only attainable, but even popular.

Even the initiatives for "local control" coming out of Washington these days often seem only to create more conflict. April Reese writes on page 4 about the Bush administration’s new rule, which was supposed to put the fate of national forest roadless areas in the hands of the states. Even governors who were initially supportive of the rule are now balking at the time-consuming and expensive process it sets up — and at the fact that, in the end, D.C. bigwigs will still make the final call.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the solar system, the good news is that democracy is bubbling up from below. Western legislatures have passed an impressive collection of environmental laws this year. Ray Ring reports on page 5 that Republicans and Democrats alike have stepped up to support clean energy, energy efficiency, and other green initiatives. Some of the stories are remarkable: In Idaho, mining companies teamed up with environmentalists to mitigate the impacts of cyanide-leach gold mining; Wyoming, which is riding its current oil and gas boom like a meth-crazed bronc rider, passed a law that gives property owners more power to negotiate with energy companies that want to drill on their land.

Perhaps the movement in the West is a direct response to the gridlock and devolution in Congress. Perhaps it’s because out here, we see firsthand the impacts of increased oil and gas drilling, mining and development. Or maybe it’s because we know we’ll still be here when this boom rolls over, still rooted in the Western deserts, forests and mountains. Regardless, it’s a hopeful sign.

Democracy is messy and slow, but it has a way of working. With time and a lot of elbow grease, we may move it all the way to Washington, D.C. Perhaps we should launch a probe ...


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