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for people who care about the West

A ghost of the 1970s


Bipartisan politics reappeared in Washington, D.C., in March. It felt like a ghost from the golden age of the environmental movement, the 1970s, when Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass major environmental laws.

The new Omnibus Public Land Management Act assembles 166 deals related to conservation and natural resources (plus an unrelated 167th for research on paralysis victims, piggy-backing on the rest in D.C. fashion).

This huge public-lands package has something for nearly everyone. It includes more than 2 million acres of new wilderness; more than 1,000 miles of newly designated wild and scenic rivers; expansions of the national parks and monuments system; water projects for California salmon and Navajo development; federal land sales, trades and giveaways, etc., etc.

While the Omni affects all 50 states, the West will see the most results, including nearly all the wilderness and river protections. The act also gives congressional approval to a Western green bureaucracy created by the Clinton administration -- the National Landscape Conservation System, which helps run 26 million acres of the best Bureau of Land Management holdings.

Keeping the Omni package intact required procedural wrangling. Nevertheless, the Senate passed it March 19 by a nearly four-to-one margin; then the House passed it two-to-one. The opponents were mainly Republicans who don't want to limit oil-and-gas drilling, but many Republicans joined the Democratic stampede to support the package. Every Western Democrat voted for it, and Western Republicans split 11-32, with 11 in favor.

When President Obama signed the package March 30, he hailed it as "that rare end product of what happens when Americans of all parties and places come together in common purpose to consider something more than the politics of the moment."

Similar rhetoric accompanied the 1970s bipartisan burst: Back then, overwhelming margins in Congress worked with Republican presidents Nixon and Ford and Democratic President Carter to make the bedrock laws that protect air and water quality and endangered species. They also set up the frameworks for forest and range management, environmental impact statements and regulation of toxic substances. Those politics centered on D.C. -- which eventually became a problem for the environmental movement, because the Republican Party has often been opposed to federal regulations.

But the Omni package not only drew Republican votes, it also contains many elements that were sponsored or co-sponsored by Republicans. That list includes a grazing compromise in Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (23,000 acres of wilderness and possible buyouts of grazing permits); a ban on drilling in 1.2 million acres of national forest in Wyoming; protection for miles of crystallized riverbed in New Mexico's Snowy River Cave; and the establishment of long-distance trails across the Northwest and Southwest.

The recent bipartisanship grew from the grassroots, in negotiations between local stakeholders. For eight years, for example, Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo shepherded a half-million-acre wilderness deal -- for the Owyhee region's desert and canyons -- to get it in the Omni package. The terms were worked out by a consensus group that includes county commissioners, ranchers, environmentalists and the Shoshone-Paiute tribe.

The Owyhee deal calls for grazing reductions on 340,000 acres. In return, regulations will be eased on 199,000 acres that had been wilderness-study areas so that ranchers can use vehicles to tend herds. A new grazing-science center will be set up, run by the University of Idaho, and ranchers hope it will advise the BLM to further relax regulations.

The whole thing (in the Owyhee) was a classic collaborative effort," says Craig Gehrke, The Wilderness Society's Idaho director. "Everyone's guard was up at first. You have to break that down to develop trust and understanding of the other person's problems."

Negotiations in Washington County, Utah, led to protection of more desert, mountains and rivers -- and an authorization to sell 5,000 to 9,000 acres of federal land near St. George, to allow the city room to grow. Some locals had called for selling 20,000 acres or more, but environmentalists whittled it down. The deal was sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and supported by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

National groups such as The Wilderness Society pushed the Omni package, though they disagreed with some details. Montana's Wilderness Watch, a small, purist group, complained that the Idaho and Utah deals "contain numerous harmful provisions that would open these areas to inappropriate activities such as the routine use of ATVs for herding livestock ... and habitat manipulation by state fish and game agencies."

Carrying out some of the terms will cost billions, and governments and private donors are expected to provide funding over the next 10 to 15 years. Uncertainties remain, but even so, the Omni package inspires many people who are working on more Western conservation deals. It also gives a much-needed lift to folks tired of partisan divides.

Omni highlights

16.8 miles of Fossil Creek named wild and scenic
New federal study for solving water issues around San Pedro River

750,000 acres of wilderness (deserts, mountains, giant redwoods)
Nearly 100 miles of wild and scenic rivers
San Joaquin River restoration, reducing farmers' water to rebuild salmon runs

316,000 acres of wilderness (canyons and mountains)
New Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area (red cliffs, petroglyphs and desert bighorns)
South Park National Heritage Area to help preserve working ranches
Programs to preserve cultural mix in San Luis Valley and open space along Front Range

517,000 acres of wilderness     (Owyhee deserts and canyons)
316 miles of Owyhee River system named wild and scenic
New science center devoted to livestock grazing

Additional $1 million per year to compensate ranchers for wolf problems (not limited to Montana)

More than 600 federal acres sold or given away for various purposes, including a new cancer treatment center
Study of Cold War sites that could become national landmarks

New Mexico
16,000 acres of wilderness (canyon country)
Added protections for dinosaur tracks and a cave formation
Pipeline from San Juan River to deliver water to the Navajo
Pipeline from Ute Reservoir to eastern New Mexico cities

204,000 acres of wilderness (deserts, forests, Mount Hood, wildflower meadows)
92 miles of wild and scenic rivers

256,000 acres of wilderness (canyon country)
Two new national conservation     areas to help preserve desert tortoise
165 miles of Virgin River system named wild and scenic

Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (highlighting how floods shaped parts of the Northwest landscape)
Pacific Northwest Trail (1,200 miles from Rockies to Pacific coast)

1.2 million acres of Bridger-Teton National Forest off-limits to future oil and gas drilling
Provisions for buyouts of existing leases in that area
387 miles of Snake River headwaters named wild and scenic