Power politics, conservation style


The late David Brower, of Sierra Club fame, once said that no environmental victories are permanent. The warning behind his words –– that those who fight the relentless march of development are underdogs in an ultimately doomed war –– has shaped the tactics of generations of activists.

That's especially true in the West, where industry and off-roaders have gnawed away at great chunks of once-wild land. Conservationists have responded with everything from tree-sitting to sophisticated political campaigns to protect federal land. Wilderness designation remains the most permanent conservation victory possible, and today, 756 areas totaling 109 million acres have been protected. Still, at least another 100 million acres of undeveloped public lands lack wilderness  protection, either because they don't have public support, are coveted by industry or just aren't  pretty enough to generate excitement.

So the conservation community has sought other ways to protect them. In the mid-'90s, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and President Bill Clinton whipped out Teddy Roosevelt's favorite law, the Antiquities Act of 1906, to carve out new national monuments from the Bureau of Land Management's geographic stockpile. This monument spree infuriated many locals and industries, but their lawsuits bounced off the Antiquities Act like hailstones on granite.

The same can't be said for challenges to Clinton's attempt to keep roads out of nearly 60 million acres of national forest. As senior editor Ray Ring reports in this issue, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule came about through a highly organized, well-heeled and -- by bureaucratic standards -- lightning-fast campaign run by green groups and foundations and friendly administration officials. Finalized in the administration's last hours, it, too, drew howls of protest and lawsuits. But this time, the conservationists may lose the battle.

Ring's analysis of the campaign –– and of the legal ping-pong match that followed it –– raises tough questions about green tactics. Are conservationists justified in employing the same type of power politics that infuriated them when they were used during the Bush years to bend national energy policy in industry's favor? In hindsight, should the roadless issue have been handled differently? Could it have been more permanently and equitably resolved on a state-by-state basis rather than via a national campaign? (Ironically, this is exactly what the Bush administration proposed.) 

In some ways, this is a risky story for High Country News to publish; some of our readers and donors are part of the community that worked hard to pass the roadless rule, and they may disagree with Ring's analysis. But we welcome any pushback, and we have faith in our community. Whether you believe that conservationists were justified in using the tactics they did or not, we know from experience that you are not afraid to engage in frank discussion. One thing is certain: The energy industry and Dick Cheney will never have this kind of conversation. We look forward to your response.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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