Obama’s record on Western environmental issues

  • Photo illustration, Barack Obama in Death Valley.

    Istock, White house photo office
  • President Barack Obama, looking slightly uncomfortable in a cowboy hat a supporter handed him during a campaign stop in 2007.

    LM Otero, AP
  • Jared Blumenfeld, EPA Region 9 administrator, addresses the crowd at a rally outside EPA headquarters in San Francisco last January that called for environmental justice for Kettleman City and other communities.

    Bradley Angel
  • U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks during a public meeting on offshore drilling in April 2009. A year later, the Obama administration would propose increasing offshore drilling just days before the Gulf oil spill.

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Desert tortoise pens at the Ivanpah site in the Mojave Desert.

    Bureau of Land Management
  • An artist's rendering of solar panels on the site.

    Brightsource Energy
 

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If the environmental movement is an ecosystem, Ruch and Suckling represent its indicator species: The most sensitive ones, the first to react when their habitat falls out of balance. Other, perhaps heartier, environmental groups' leaders aren't quite so disgruntled. Gene Karpinski, for instance, director of the League of Conservation Voters, warmly endorsed Salazar. A few prominent environmentalists in national groups were so worried about disrupting the administration's careful deal-making that they declined to speak on the record at all for this story. (Suckling, without naming names, wishes more of them would be willing take the risk, even if it threatens important alliances. "If the environmental movement pushed back harder," he says, "we could enjoy some benefits of Obama's waffling -- we could at least get him to waffle in our direction.")

Other environmentalists simply believe Obama's been handed too tall an order. "They're dealing with extremely challenging resource management conflicts," says John Kostyack, vice president of wildlife conservation at the National Wildlife Federation. To sincerely evaluate the administration's progress on, say, endangered species, "you'd have to look around the country to hundreds of intense negotiations under way over how to reconcile our species conservation goals with pressure from economic development and global warming."

There was never any serious argument among environmentalists about whether President Bush did enough to protect the environment. But at least Bush retained allies in the oil and gas industry, who enjoyed a rush of new leases and rights under his rule. In contrast, there have been times in the last two years when it has seemed like Obama couldn't make anybody happy -- when several news cycles passed without a single cable news host uttering a good word about him, even if the two sides contradicted each other -- one side accusing the president of caving to industry and the other of socialist tyranny.

In a July 2010 report called The War on Western Jobs, 48 Republicans from the Senate and Western Congressional Caucuses, including Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, warned that the Obama administration is, among other things, harboring secret plans to designate national monuments, sending high-paying mining jobs overseas, and generally exacerbating the West's high unemployment rates by threatening to declare coal waste hazardous to human health.

Never mind that Obama's Office of Management and Budget rewrote the EPA's coal ash rule to suit the coal and waste management industries, or that Obama and Salazar opened new areas off the coasts to offshore drilling on March 31, 2010 -- 20 days before the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The War on Western Jobs still paints him as an environmentalist warrior to rival Clinton, who by executive order converted millions of acres of federal land into more than a dozen new national monuments and protected nearly one-third of the national forest system as "roadless forest," a brand-new category. Clinton's own Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, pushed with limited success for mining and grazing reform, and environmentalists liked him as much as ranchers and miners hated him.

Between the extremes of pure environmentalism and the latest iteration of the Sagebrush Rebels, however, there is a story emerging from the Obama administration of systemic progress on environmental issues, some of it arcane and nuanced and much of it at ground level. He has not taken the hard turn toward change that many people hoped for, and the small steps taken may not be enough to halt the rising of the oceans before they erode the California coastline, or stave off precipitation shifts before they kill the West's ski resorts and ratchet up our water-supply wars. But under the circumstances -- a miserable economy, two quagmire wars, a brutal fight over healthcare reform in a nearly paralyzed Congress -- it may be all anyone could have done. And it may turn out to be the kind of progress that will be harder to reverse in future, inevitably more hostile years.

And so, no, Obama has not led on the more visible issues like climate policy. From the northern spotted owl to the gray wolf, his administration has done no more than Bush's did to save endangered species. But to act on those kinds of issues this early in his administration would have required a level of combativeness of which Obama -- who grew up with a foot in each world wherever he stood -- appears to be constitutionally incapable.

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