Midnight cowboying

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As the Bush administration prepares to step out the back door of history, it's following a time-honored tradition -- shoving through hundreds of last-minute rule changes. Outgoing President Clinton slammed out 26,000 pages of new rules, many of them meant to protect land or public health. But President Bush's "midnight regulations" are mostly gifts to big business, easing restrictions that industry has complained about (see "The sick and tired West"). When a new rule appears in the Federal Register, another 30 to 60 days (depending on the rule's economic impact) must pass before it takes effect. Once President-elect Obama takes office, he'll be able to overturn new rules that haven't yet taken effect, but any already in place will be hard to undo. A little-used 1996 law, the Congressional Review Act, could help -- it lets Congress scrutinize new regs and overturn them with a majority vote.

Here are a few of the potential landmines Bush is leaving in the West. The ** icon indicates the ones that will probably be in effect by Jan. 20.

Take yer hands off that land -- or not   **
This June, alarmed by the dozens of new uranium-mining permits being issued near the Grand Canyon, lawmakers invoked an obscure rule that allowed congressional committees to take emergency action to protect public lands threatened by mining or drilling. They ordered Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to ban new mining claims on more than 1 million acres around the canyon for up to three years. Kempthorne stalled, and in December, the Bureau of Land Management changed the rule so that only the Interior secretary can make emergency withdrawals of land from mineral development.

I (can't) see clearly now (WITHDRAWN BY EPA)
The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing a plan that would make it easier to put coal-fired power plants and other big polluters next to national parks and wilderness areas. A rule change proposed in November would let the agency ignore spikes in pollution levels by measuring average air pollution in "Class 1 areas" over an entire year, rather than checking it at 3- and 2-hour intervals. Half of the EPA's regional administrators formally objected to the decision, but the agency is pressing ahead. The EPA also wants to change the rules for installing pollution-control devices on power plants, a move enviros said would result in fewer such installations.

Shale sale beyond the pale?  **
In November, the BLM issued its plan for oil shale leasing. Skipping public input, it also amended the plans governing 2 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah to promote oil shale development. Enviros and politicians say the new rules set royalties too low and warn that oil shale production will hurt wildlife habitat, suck up alarming amounts of water and electricity, and worsen global warming. But don't worry, says the Department of Interior -- that's all at least a decade away, since companies are still trying to figure out the process.

This one's really fishy   **
This new rule from the National Marine Fisheries Service would let managers make decisions about fishing activities without fully considering how they'll affect other marine critters. The rule also curtails public comment on decisions and lets regional councils, which are often dominated by fishing interests, oversee environmental impact reviews.

Navigable, schmavigable   **
Two years ago, a Supreme Court decision weakened the Clean Water Act, dropping protection from as many as 20 million acres of wetlands and half the nation's streams, and confusing efforts to prosecute polluters. In early December, the EPA released new guidelines that confirm the court's narrow interpretation. The agency says that to protect a wetland, it must have a "significant nexus" with waters that are "navigable-in-fact" -- and it's tightened the definition of "navigable" to emphasize commercial use. In protest, Heather Wylie, an Army Corps of Engineers biologist, kayaked a 20-mile section of the L.A. river in July to show that it's navigable. The Corps was not amused -- it promptly threatened Wylie with a 30-day suspension.

Want some mouse genes with that pork chop?
In September, the Food and Drug Administration issued a proposal for approving genetically modified animal products, which contain genes from other species. Such products would be reviewed for risks to humans, the environment and the animals themselves before hitting the shelves -- but that process would be secret, to protect companies' competitive advantages. Not all genetically engineered food would have to be labeled as such, either. Bon appetit.

OTHER NOTABLE MIDNIGHT RULES:

Delisting Northern Rockies gray wolves (sans those in Wyoming).

Ending a 25-year-ban on carrying loaded weapons in national parks.  **

Making it easier for mining companies to dump mining waste near streams and rivers.   **

Lowering air quality standards for lead.  **

Letting national park superintendents decide where and how to allow mountain biking in parks.

Delaying the adoption of higher gas-mileage standards.

Abandoning plans to analyze all national forest routes and decide which are necessary and whether current uses of those routes cause too much damage.  **

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