Two weeks in the West

  • Richard Pombo

  • Red tree vole, a major food source for the threatened northern spotted owl

    Martin Raphael, USFS

"What are you going to do? They dumped millions on my head."

—Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., on election night, as he realized he would get voted out of office. Democrat Jerry McNerney upset Pombo with the help of an infusion of cash from various environmental groups.

Indian Country thaw. The Hopi and Navajo tribes this month ended a long-standing feud over reservation boundaries in Arizona. The agreement lifts a 40-year-old ban on development on 700,000 acres on the western Navajo Nation and allows Hopis access to religious sites on Navajo land. Tensions go back to the 1800s, when Navajos encroached on ancestral Hopi land; later federal expansion of the Navajo Reservation exacerbated problems. The ensuing row dragged through the courts for decades and forced thousands of Navajos and about 100 Hopis from their homes on land considered sacred by both tribes. In 1966, the feds banned construction and infrastructure development on a swath of the Navajo Nation until the dispute was settled, leaving residents in a "time warp," unable to build roads or repair their homes without Hopi permission. "It’s a milestone to negotiate this to an end in a peaceful manner," says former Hopi Chairman Ferrell Secakuku. "We both have to co-exist here."

"Black Sunday" redux? In 1982, hopes that oil could be squeezed from shale died when Exxon shut down its $5 billion oil shale project near Parachute, Colo., leaving 2,200 workers without jobs and sending the area’s economy into a tailspin. Now, the industry is showing new signs of life: On Nov. 13, the federal Bureau of Land Management issued five oil shale leases in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, despite environmental concerns raised by state agencies as well as the U.S. Geological Survey. Shell, Chevron and EGL Resources will use their 160-acre parcels to test a process in which shale is heated underground to release oil, and then the oil is pumped to the surface. Although it may take a decade to prove the method’s feasibility, the 2005 Energy Policy Act requires the BLM to be ready to issue commercial oil shale leases by 2008. "It’s hard to watch us go down this path again," says Pat Kennedy, a local businessman who is on the BLM’s Northwest Colorado Resource Advisory Council. "If oil shale turns out not to be feasible, the companies will just walk away again."

Opening the gate to energy, halfway. Northern Cheyenne voters in Montana gave the go-ahead to open up the tribe’s ample reserves of coal to development, but they killed a similar initiative on coalbed methane. Supporters of energy development tout the economic boost it could bring to the impoverished tribe, holding up as a model Colorado’s Southern Ute tribe, which has prospered by drilling the coalbed methane on its reservation. Others argue that financial gains — the tribe’s coal is worth at least $3 billion — can’t offset the environmental and cultural impacts brought by the industry. This isn’t the first time the tribe has grappled with the issue: In the 1960s and ’70s, the Northern Cheyenne fought off a half-dozen energy companies that tried to grab the tribe’s coal.

Developers sunk in vernal pools. On Nov. 2, U.S. District Court Judge William B. Shubb upheld the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of critical habitat for 15 species on 860,000 acres of "vernal pools," or seasonal wetlands, in California and Oregon — and told the agency to consider designating more than twice as much. A coalition of homebuilders had challenged the designations, arguing that the Service failed to adequately consider the economic impacts of making such areas off-limits to development. But environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, contended that the federal government improperly excluded another 900,000 acres from consideration. The Fish and Wildlife service has until March to write a new critical habitat rule.

Vole victory. A panel of judges from the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Nov. 6 that the federal Bureau of Land Management illegally removed protections for the red tree vole in order to approve two old-growth timber sales near Grants Pass in southern Oregon. The "survey and manage" rules of the Northwest Forest Plan — which the BLM and the Forest Service are in the process of rewriting — prohibit logging in areas where rare species like the vole that depend on old-growth forests would be disturbed. The panel ruled that the BLM cannot change the status of such species without formal environmental review and public input.

Vote values

$35 Amount spent per vote for Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana. He lost.

$19 Amount spent per vote for Jon Tester, Burns’ Democratic opponent and the new senator-elect of Montana.

$36 Amount spent per vote for Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who lost.

$14 Amount spent per vote for Jerry McNerney, Pombo’s opponent and the representative-elect for California’s 11th District.

$197,547 Amount donated by the casino and gambling industry to the losing campaign of Rep. Pombo.

$82,596 Amount donated by labor unions to McNerney.

5th Rank of New Mexico’s District 1 House race among the nation’s most expensive. At press time, a recount was under way. Rep. Heather Wilson, R, held a slim lead over Democrat Patricia Madrid.


SOURCES: Federal Election Commission; The Center for Responsive Politics

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