Is it politics, or is it revolution?

  • Montanans rally against dismantling water-protection laws

    Mont. Wilderness Assn.

With Republicans firmly in power after the November landslide, a kind of insurrection is brewing in nearly every Western state.

In legislative halls throughout the West, it's popular to assert states' rights under the 10th Amendment, streamline or gut environmental regulations and push private property "takings' legislation.

Some states, including Arizona, Utah and Idaho, have created a Constitutional Defense Council to challenge unwanted federal mandates or assert state control of federal land. Idaho's council is authorized to spend up to $1 million on the effort. And in states such as Wyoming and Montana, legislatures have urged citizens to buy firearms to keep federal officials at bay.

"The rebellion is out there again, it's clear," notes John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State University. "But some of the states' rebellions may have as much to do about unfunded mandates as they do about public lands."

Mark Pollot, director of the constitutional law center for the Boise-based group Stewards of the Range, said lawmakers believe the public has ordered them to rein in government. "The overarching thing is the federal government is controlling things, pushing things, and they're not being responsive to the people," Pollot said.

In Washington and Montana, the states' rights agenda has attracted less attention than efforts to soften environmental regulations and shore up protection for private property rights.

Peter Hurley, executive director of the Washington Environmental Council, sounded an alarm in the group's newsletter Voices. "Environmental laws are under the most dangerous attack since James Watt. Monied special interests smell blood and are attacking full force," he said.

The council is tracking what it refers to as "the Sinister Six," a half-dozen bills that would weaken environmental protection, gut the state Forest Practices Act and undermine citizen participation under the state's Environmental Policy Act. The council also opposes "takings' Initiative 164, which would force taxpayers to pay developers not to pollute. Hurley calls it "a taxpayer's worst nightmare."

In Montana, about 300 people recently rallied at the Statehouse in Helena against major changes in state water-quality laws.

"It's a wholesale dismantling of water protection laws for the benefit of the mining industry, and they don't deserve it," said Julia Page, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council from Gardiner, Mont.

The water-quality rally didn't get much ink in the newspapers or footage on the local news. It was overshadowed by the state Senate's action to kill a bill regulating homosexuals. It required anyone convicted of violating sodomy laws to register with local law enforcement authorities along with rapists and child-molesters.

"We would have liked to get more attention in the press, but (the gay bill) is indicative of the extreme nature of the Senate," Page said.

While local environmental and public interest groups try to fight off the onslaught, many citizens remain unaware of the radical nature of some of the new laws, said Tarso Ramos, research director for the Western States Center in Portland, Ore. "The danger in this is that there's so much momentum behind states' rights that these bills can develop support without serious consideration of the issues at hand."

To Mindy Harm of the Idaho Conservation League, the states' rights rebellion is "just warmed-over Sagebrush Rebellion: It's the same cast of characters who want to cash in on the privatization of federal lands."

Most Western states have passed resolutions or memorials that assert states' rights under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They say, in part, that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

How far will that effort go? Will some states try to leave the Union? Idaho State Sen. Mary Lou Reed hopes people will see the value of maintaining a federal role. "The extreme interpretation has a real potential of unraveling the Union, unraveling the flag," she said. "I share the concern for balance, but if we swing too far the other way, then we could end up in the same camp as the extremists."

The drive for states' rights is so new it has yet to be fully defined. Both Pollot and Freemuth see the movement cresting during a Conference of the States to be held Oct. 23-25 in Philadelphia.

Freemuth said he sees no coherent strategy yet, particularly on public lands. He characterized Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth's recent congressional hearing on "Federal Excessive Use of Force," as staged theater with a purpose: "Let's beat up on the feds."

The writer works out of Boise, Idaho.

High Country News Classifieds