Agency leaders need to come out swinging

 

With a muffled thump, a small bomb ripped through Forest Service offices in Carson City, Nev., in late March, damaging walls and computer equipment.

The damages were not just physical; for the men and women whose daily routines were shattered, the detonation had understandable psychological ramifications. There were political reverberations, too: Some public-land managers who had been backing off from confrontations with the neo-Sagebrush Rebels backed off even more.

If you lie low enough, the theory seems to run, the current gales of Western animosity toward the federal government will blow over, a posture that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas and others have adopted. For them, all's quiet on the Western front.

But by not directly challenging those arrayed against them, or forcefully articulating why public lands are in the national interest, these leaders fail their employees and turn their backs on the cultural and political history from which their current mandates have grown.

Ninety years ago, when the Forest Service was created, the fights were no less tough as a fledgling agency determined to implement federal protection over publicly owned lands ran afoul of exploiters whose resistance occasionally turned violent: The Carson City explosion is not unique.

But at least then there were fights. The Roosevelt administration and most especially chief forester Gifford Pinchot threw themselves into the political fray. That in time they swept away opposition is not incidental; it is against the Progressive Era vision of an active federalism that neo-sagebrushers have arisen.

Pinchot made a point of roaming the West challenging those who challenged him. He hopped one train after another for meetings in Denver, Salt Lake City or Boise, in Wallace, Cheyenne, Portland or Spokane, where invariably he would find himself standing before intensely hostile crowds. Their hostility had been stoked by an insurgent press that regularly cast him as an autocratic and vengeful Czar - talk radio has nothing on those ink-stained purveyors of hate.

The wonder is that he managed to get his message across. He did so by approaching these raucous meetings as essential elements in a democratic dialogue. Each offered him access to his foes, each was an opportunity to stake his claim for federal regulation of the national forests; with luck he might also moderate his antagonist's perspective.

He expected verbal fireworks and tense confrontations and got them. Nowhere was this more true than at the Denver Public Lands Convention held in mid-June 1907. Called by the Colorado Legislature in the midst of an upsurge in Western frustration with the Roosevelt administration - including its sudden withdrawal of more than 16 million acres of public land to form 21 new national forests - the convention was billed as a showdown: advocates of states rights vs. advocates of federal power.

The feds prevailed after four days of squabbling, and did so in part because Pinchot, though continually heckled, stood his ground, patiently explaining why regulation of sheep and cattle grazing, and of timber cutting and mining, was critical to a healthy landscape and a prosperous economy.

The web of mutuality that governed the relationship between the people and the land on which they lived not only defined the paramount problem facing the West, he reminded his audience, but was also its inspired resolution. Each interest should be fulfilled where possible, but none could expect to supplant the carrying capacity of the land.

Should his generation fail in its duty to the land, "no amount of success in any other direction will keep us prosperous. It is a question of both the present and the future." Private interests must give way to the public good.

That's still true. Pinchot's blunt arguments and aggressive political strategy may offer some inspiration for resolving the late 20th-century controversy over the control and utilization of public lands. His goal, after all, was to decenter the narrow concerns of specific resource groups, forcing each to acknowledge the overarching needs of the complex collective - what he called the public good - an approach that thrust the principles of conservation to center stage.

Once these ideals became the basis for discussion he was able to mute his opponents' once-dominant voices and build a coalition in support of a conservation ethic.

True, we live in different times: Bill Clinton is not Teddy Roosevelt, who always backed Pinchot to the hilt. But do agency heads have any choice but to come out swinging? If they do not become highly visible and forceful presences in the political landscape, if they continue to duck before the radio-led onslaught rather than bring their arguments into the intermountain West, then the Carson City bombers will have carried the day.

Char Miller teaches history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

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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