Environmentalists may have to take what they can get


For those of you who had hoped that the Obama administration would oversee the boldest conservation initiatives this country has seen since the days of Richard Milhous Nixon (who signed many of our country's most important environmental laws), you can now cease hoping.

The Great Recession, combined with a resurgent right wing that has exploited it to relentlessly attack the federal government, has, with a few exceptions, beaten down the many good intentions this administration had for cleaning the air, reducing greenhouse gases and protecting public lands.

At Obama's Interior Department, which oversees much of the West's vast federal lands, Secretary Ken Salazar has watched several of his conservation initiatives, including a plan to increase protection for wild lands overseen by the Bureau Land Management, get shredded by our hyper-polarized national politics. Reporter Kate Sheppard's profile of Salazar -- a Colorado native -- on page 9 reveals a man who, after two and a half years on the job, is wearily and warily padding through ideological minefields, while pining for the good old days when, as a Democratic U.S. senator, he regularly worked with Republicans on issues including energy and immigration policy -- areas where the two parties rarely intersect today.

Fortunately, conservation work does not solely depend on getting Congress and whatever administration is in power to agree. Our cover story on the efforts to save the West's unique whitebark pines from the ravages of pests and climate change has enough good will in it to warm your heart this holiday season -- from the tree-climbers who pick pinecones in search of seeds resistant to blister rust, to the conservationists who conducted their own surveys of the horrific whitebark decline in the Yellowstone region, successfully sharing their data with federal officials.

Meanwhile, good news can be found on the West's ecologically critical private lands, where the conservation business has flourished despite the recession. As Jon Christensen and coauthors Jenny Rempel and Judee Burr report on page 3, more private land is now being protected than developed in much of the region. Lower property values have allowed land trusts to purchase land at cut-rate prices, and an ever-growing number of landowners are eager to take advantage of the tax breaks associated with conservation easements.

Salazar has found some silver linings, too, pursuing public-private conservation partnerships and focusing his public-lands initiatives on places where there is already local support.

This approach to conservation is not as exhilarating as Republican President Teddy Roosevelt's and Democratic President Bill Clinton's instant creation of new national monuments, or as the 1970s bipartisan passage of strong, sweeping anti-pollution laws. But it may be the best we can do in these reactionary times.

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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