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for people who care about the West

Western wish list for Obama

The hopes and worries of 11 key Westerners


Leaders of the big green groups are talking behind the scenes with President-elect Barack Obama and his staffers and advisors. The Obama camp has encouraged the dialogue, reaching out months ago for recommendations about how to clean up the George W. Bush mess and move forward on environmental issues.

In the final days of his administration, Bush is trying to dismantle as many environmental regulations as possible, weakening everything from the Endangered Species Act to the definition of organic salmon (to allow industrial farmed salmon to carry the label).

But Obama -- and Congress -- have already started pushing back. The House of Representatives voted a few weeks ago to install an environmentalist, California Rep. Henry Waxman, as chair of the House committee that oversees energy and climate-change issues. And bigger Democratic congressional majorities should give Obama a boost on future green initiatives.

Unfortunately, the global economic meltdown may get in the way of serious environmental progress. Still, many are looking to Obama and the next Congress with soaring expectations.

Here's a sampling of the hopes and worries of 11 key Westerners.


Sierra Club regional director for California, Nevada and Hawaii
Sacramento, Calif.

Zichella, who sees climate change as the top issue facing the new administration, hopes that Barack Obama will follow through on his many promises to act on it. Obama needs to develop more wind and solar energy, Zichella says, and force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. (Bush's EPA has refused to do so, even ignoring a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue.) Such EPA action would greatly increase pressure on the coal-plant industry to clean up its act, if that's possible. And, Zichella adds, Obama's EPA should quickly allow California, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and other states to carry out their plans to limit carbon-dioxide emissions from vehicles -- something else Bush's EPA refused to do. That would force the U.S. auto industry to make far more efficient vehicles, reducing fuel consumption as well as emissions. Thus, Obama "would help push the American auto industry in a direction it's failed to go, at its own peril."


Director of the Quivira Coalition, a rancher/green group
Santa Fe, N.M.

As a rancher who raises grass-fed cattle and leads a group that markets that kind of beef, White seeks Obama's support for the local-food movement. Current policy, with its federal subsidies for huge corporate farms that gobble fossil fuels for long-distance shipments, also encourages the use of petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides -- major causes of climate change and pollution. White is inspired by Michael Pollan's recent New York Times essay, "Farmer in Chief," which maps how Obama could lead on agricultural reform. Current regulations, for instance, make it difficult for small local slaughterhouses to operate, so most ranchers have to ship their cattle to industrial slaughterhouses controlled by what many describe as the meatpackers' cartel. "We need a radical re-visioning, away from the subsidization of the industrial food system. If we're going to incentivize solar and wind energy production, why don't we incentivize local food production as well? It has just as much climate impact."


Director of the Western Watersheds Project

Hailey, IdahoA well-known advocate of lawsuits against ranchers who abuse public land, Marvel hopes that Obama and the new Congress will finally make conservation the primary goal of public-lands management. Installing ombudsmen in all federal agencies to consider public complaints would help reduce the need for lawsuits, Marvel believes. But "the very first thing" Obama should do is make a lot more government documents available on the Internet. All the studies, memos, notes and data produced by agencies -- most of which are not readily available now -- could be collected in an online database, searchable by anyone. Marvel says such "transparency" would reduce political influences and corruption. "When you enable the public to see easily what the government is doing, you enable an informed electorate. The whole Bush program has been to create secrecy and to deny the public an understanding of what's going on. Obama knows how the Internet can be used. We are in a time now when technologically this can be done."


Energy issues organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Gearon, a Stanford-educated Navajo, works with groups on many reservations to develop wind and solar projects, instead of the coal and other fossil-fuel schemes that are often backed by tribal governments. She's glad that Obama reached out to tribal leaders during his campaign, with promises to appoint an Indian policy advisor to his senior White House staff and to hold an annual summit of tribal leaders. "That's something I'm very excited about, and a little worried about. We work on a very grassroots and community level. A lot of times, we're not in exact alignment with our tribal governments. So I hope Obama's outreach is not only to the tribal governmental leaders, but also to the community people, so we're not locked into these one-track-mind economies on our reservations."


President of Dolores Huerta Foundation
Bakersfield, Calif.

Huerta hopes that Obama will make the Environmental Protection Agency more vigilant in assessing the risks from farm chemicals, unlike Bush's EPA, which she believes favored industry over the concerns of workers and agricultural communities. Obama could also shift oversight of pesticides and herbicides from the EPA and the Department of Agriculture (which is also dominated by industry) to the Department of Health and Human Services. "We need a big change, to fully test the poisons to make sure they're safe," not only for farmworkers, but also for their field-side neighborhoods, consumers of crops, and ecosystems, Huerta says. "The pesticides sprayed from trucks and planes go into the farmworker communities. Thousands of farm workers have been poisoned. It's a question of political pressure. These are poor people. They don't have a loud voice. They don't have much support from the government."


Director of Gifford Pinchot Task Force
Portland, Ore.

As a forest-health advocate, Platt hopes that Obama will help fund eco-restoration jobs as part of his $700 billion plan to stimulate the economy. "Obama has focused on clean-energy jobs. But there's an incredible opportunity and need for restoration jobs on public lands in the West," she says. "For instance, there's an $8 billion backlog for road maintenance in national forests. We need to remove roads that aren't needed anymore and upgrade or maintain roads that are needed. The backlog causes problems for fish and wildlife -- erosion of sediment into streams and fragmentation of habitat -- and for people trying to gain access to public lands. We also need to do more to control weeds, replant areas, and restore fish habitat by creating pools and hiding cover. These are engineering jobs and (all kinds of laborer) jobs. It would be a boon to local economies and an investment in keeping our public lands in good shape."


Wildfire researcher in U.S. Forest Service's Fire Sciences Lab
Missoula, Mont.

An unorthodox expert on one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the West, Cohen has investigated monstrous wildfires and done "field experiments" -- intentionally steering fires toward buildings. Federal wildfire policy is "obviously failing," Cohen says. "It doesn't work." The feds devote billions of dollars to wide-scale thinning and manic firefighting, mostly to protect homes, yet fires continue to rampage, most recently in California, where more than 1,000 houses were destroyed in November. Cohen hopes that Obama will change fire policy, shifting responsibility from the federal government to the people whose houses are at risk. A few simple precautions, such as thinning vegetation outward to 100 feet from houses, would save mountains of taxpayer money, while reducing firefighter fatalities and property losses. "We can't exclude wildfires" from the forests, Cohen says. "Instead of viewing it as a wildfire-control problem, we need to view it as a home-ignition problem."


Journalist and author
Inverness, Calif.

Twelve years after his investigative book, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century, came out, Dowie continues to track the movement's struggles. He says Obama should restore various offices of "scientific integrity" that Bush quietly eliminated with budget cuts. "The names of the offices varied, but every agency had one, where you could go if you had a complaint about scientific fraud or abuse. Now (thanks to Bush), there is nowhere you can go with such a complaint. Not even the National Academy of Sciences -- a third of its operations used to be looking for scientific abuse, but if you make a complaint to them now, they say, 'We'll look into it, but only if you fund (the investigation).' " Dowie would also like to see Obama "call a meeting of leaders of environmental and conservation groups -- not just the big groups, but also a lot of the grassroots groups. Have a roundtable, and ask them the same question you're asking me: 'What can we do to assure the environmental health of our nation?' Be sincere, don't do it just to gain (political support)."                                    


Political science professor
University of California-Santa Barbara

Based on his analysis of U.S. senators' votes and discussions in recent years, Smith concludes that -- despite the Democrats' gains in the November elections -- Obama will not have an easy time passing aggressive new environmental laws. "In the new Congress, the enviros won't quite have enough votes in the Senate to push through any huge changes without some compromise or deal-making. On large issues, such as cap-and-trade (limits on carbon-dioxide emissions), or tougher fuel standards for vehicles, or developing wind power further, the enviros are going to have to put something on the table. I suspect the deals will include more offshore oil drilling, more natural gas development in the West, possibly guarantees for nuclear power plants, possibly even oil-shale development." There are "pro-oil Democrats," Smith notes, and the environmental movement itself is split over issues such as nuclear power and marching new electricity lines across the landscape. Basically, he advises Obama to "settle for what we can do."


Senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West
Missoula, Mont.

Kemmis is a longtime fan of consensus, especially of local compromises reached by environmentalists, ranchers and loggers. But he has seen such efforts stalled by inflexible regulations and the plodding bureaucracy of the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies. Obama, he says, should encourage the agencies to create a "virtual region" for experiments, so different approaches can be tested and new solutions found. Proposals for consensus efforts around the West could proceed under the loose supervision of this new "Region 7" -- Kemmis' suggested title, after a former Forest Service regional office that was merged with another office in 1965. "If you had a Region 7, whose whole purpose is to encourage experimentation, then collaborative efforts would have something to take hold of, rather than trying to fight against a system that doesn't know how to incorporate their ideas. Obama often states a commitment to getting diverse interests to solve problems together, pragmatically. The Region 7 idea seems entirely consistent with Obama's approach."


Chair of the Center of the American West
University of Colorado-Boulder

A deep-thinking historian, Limerick worries that Western environmentalists who have set their hopes too high could quickly grow frustrated with Obama. It's a pattern: Many hard-line enviros felt betrayed by the last two Democratic presidents -- especially by those presidents' secretaries of Interior, Bruce Babbitt and Cecil Andrus, because they weren't purists on grazing, endangered species, wilderness and other issues. Limerick urges the administration and environmentalists not to rush into clashes over issues, "the whole line-in-the-sand, Alamo type-of-thing again," regardless of who ends up running Interior. If Obama and Congress go too far in the rush to restore regulations weakened by Bush, they could trigger a whole new round of the Sagebrush Rebellion, anti-green, anti-government rage in rural communities. Limerick encourages a thoughtful approach: She advises environmentalists to "be more aimed in who you attack."