Dodged bullets

How the Bush administration shot -- and missed -- on some Western issues

 

THE BULLET
Selling public lands to fill federal coffers

THE DODGE
Under the banner of deficit reduction, in 2005, Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., and Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., tried to overturn an 11-year moratorium on selling federal land to mining companies. Their proposal would have let companies buy public land for as little as $1,000 per acre, then potentially sell it for development. Outraged hunters and conservationists convinced Western politicians to sink the proposal.

The next year, Bush floated a budget proposal directing the Forest Service and BLM to generate more than $1 billion by selling off land. Again, Western politicians killed the idea. 

RELOAD FACTOR*

5 bullets
Despite the burgeoning deficit, this idea isn't likely to return under the Obama administration. In the long haul, however, a land sell-off will doubtless be suggested again.

•••

THE BULLET
Rewriting the mission of the Park Service 

THE DODGE
Our national parks really need more snowmobiles, jet skis, hunting and livestock grazing.  At least, that's what Bush political appointee Paul Hoffman seemed to think. As Interior's deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, Hoffman secretly tried to revise National Park Service management policy in late 2005 to weaken environmental protection and boost commercial interests. After Hoffman's draft was leaked, public protest caused the Park Service to backpedal, rewriting the document and then attributing it to over 100 NPS employees, none of whom were ever identified. In 2006, then-incoming Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne tossed Hoffman's draft and transferred him. Hoffman retired from Interior in August 2008 and now writes his own blog: "Talk It Up America: The Good News consistent with Philippians 4:8." 

RELOAD FACTOR*

1 bullet
Another attempt at mission derailment is unlikely. President-elect Obama, asked about his stance on national parks by Backpacker magazine, promised to put science above special interests and "make good on the promise that President Bush has broken."

•••

THE BULLET
Completely overhauling the Endangered Species Act

THE DODGE
Long the Holy Grail of the anti-regs crowd, "reform" of this bedrock law has been tried numerous times. Between 1997 and 2005, Rep. Pombo made no less than a dozen attempts to make the act more industry-friendly.

When wholesale rewrites failed, reformers took a different tack. In 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service began trying to revise the regulations that implement the ESA, a change requiring only the signature of the Interior secretary rather than congressional approval. That effort failed as well, but the administration succeeded in weakening the law in more subtle ways. Around eight new species per year were listed during Bush's tenure, compared to 65 under Clinton and 58 under Bush the elder. And Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie McDonald, a Bush appointee, tampered with the protections of at least a dozen rare species (see page 9).

Now, Interior is trying to implement more changes, including one of Pombo's pet provisions, which would hamstring the requirement that federal agencies consult with wildlife experts about their projects. Under the new provision, the agencies won't have to get advice from scientists if they've decided on their own that their highways, dams or mines pose no threat to imperiled species. Another change would allow federal agencies to ignore the effects of climate change when evaluating risks to listed species.

RELOAD FACTOR* 

4 bullets
The Obama administration is expected to toss the latest changes. But this key law is overdue for reauthorization. Congress last reconfirmed the ESA in 1992, and if it undertakes that process again, representatives could try to sneak amendments into the bill that weaken it. Future administrations may also give wholesale reform another go.

•••

THE BULLET
Opening national monuments to oil and gas leasing

THE DODGE
When Bill Clinton designated three new national monuments on his way out the door, enviros were elated -- and a lot of ranchers, drillers and miners were outraged. In 2001, then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and President Bush called for making those monument lands available for oil and gas development. In response, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, West Virginia, offered an amendment to an appropriations bill that banned new energy leases in national monuments. The bill became law under a
Republican-controlled House and Senate.

RELOAD FACTOR*

2 bullets
Never say never. "Given how fast things shifted on drilling the outer continental shelf, I'd be nervous about predicting that there won't be further attempts (to open the monuments to drilling)," says Dave Alberswerth, senior policy analyst with The Wilderness Society. "But for now, we're safe."

•••

THE BULLET
Undoing grazing reform

THE DODGE
In December 2004, Gale Norton proposed a rule that would overturn many of the grazing reforms instituted under former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Norton's changes were meant to give ranchers more rights.

BLM scientists said the new rules would hurt wildlife, vegetation and water supplies. Agency higher-ups then rewrote the scientists' report to say that the new rules would, by and large, cause no harm. But Idaho District Judge B. Lynn Winmill blocked the revised rules, saying the changes were a sop to the livestock industry and violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. 

RELOAD FACTOR*

1 bullet
Not likely to be revived: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Winmill's injunction.

 

* NOTE: 5 bullets indicates the issues that are most likely to come up again; 1 bullet indicates those that are least likely to be revived. 
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