How to turn lemonade into lemons

 

The environmental movement seems intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. With a perverse political sense that values bad news and dismal foreboding over progress and natural evolution, environmentalists are putting a tragic, apocalyptic spin on every event.

Take the firing of former Bureau of Land Management head Jim Baca. It was unfortunate. Baca is a dedicated man - outspoken in his determination to improve the West's rangeland. But he was not the man to head the BLM under Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's new policy of consensus groups.

Once Babbitt moved in that direction, Baca had to leave. His messy exit was unfortunate. But it's not as serious as the interpretation that had President Clinton ordering Babbitt to fire Baca to placate the West. It's a theory Baca at least doesn't believe. He told this paper (HCN, 2/21/94):

"I'm a presidential appointee. So Interior had to lobby the White House to fire me. Tom Collier (Babbitt's chief of staff) lobbied the Western governors to demand my ouster from the White House."

The other approach to Baca's firing and grazing reform focuses on Babbitt himself. The quick tempered, eminently quotable Jay Hair, head of the National Wildlife Federation, said there is no difference between Babbitt and former Interior Secretary James Watt when it comes to personnel matters.

That's mild compared to editor Jeffrey St. Clair's essay (see above), which charges that Babbitt is a racist who felt free to do Baca dirt because Baca is Hispanic and Catholic.

There is every reason for the environmental community to closely question Babbitt's policy of on-the-ground decision making. But the change in grazing policy should be the issue - not the firing of Baca.

And the questioning of Babbitt's policy can be done without rhetoric that turns every environmental issue into one that marks the end of the world and the betrayal of sacred principles. We can never succeed with such attitudes.

Take St. Clair's charge that Babbitt is anti-Catholic and anti-Hispanic. Babbitt is a graduate of Notre Dame University. He is very interested in Latin America, and his spouse is this nation's ambassador to the Organization of American States. Of course, Babbitt may have hated his years at Notre Dame, and hated his fellow students, who elected him president of the student body. His wife may be serving as ambassador to the OAS to grind Latinos further under the U.S. imperialistic heel. Anything is possible.

But what is likely? What is reasonable?

What is reasonable is that Babbitt has chosen another path to grazing reform, and Baca was in the way. Babbitt has decided that the struggle to change Westerners' approach has reached the point where some of the region's ranchers have internalized the outside criticism that has rained on the West for the past several decades. Babbitt has decided, in his words, that he can't "call out the militia" to impose land reform, and instead must rely on a slower, less spectacular approach.

Not all the fevered rhetoric on this issue comes from environmentalists. Ranchers and the Western senators have been harsh and destructive in their attacks on grazing reform and on Babbitt. That is suicidal, for ranchers and loggers and miners have a huge stake in a reasonable, intelligent, activist hand on the helm at Interior. Today's mess is in large part a result of 12 years of reaction, mischief and malaise at Interior.

If, in our collective desire to have only our individual ways, we drive Babbitt from office, we will all mourn the event. After Babbitt, we will get a nonentity who will play it safe, someone who will not attempt to move the West further into the era of reform.

And make no mistake about it - the West is already deep into reform. Look, for example, at the efforts to pass "custom and culture" ordinances to give rural counties leverage over decisions by federal land managers. Even five years ago, county commissioners didn't need to pass Catron County-type ordinances; they only had to call the federal land managers on the phone or on the carpet, and give them their orders. The Catron County movement is a confession that traditional rural Westerners are losing control of federal staffers, of the agency budgets, and of public opinion.

If all that were happening were these wise-use forays, then the traditional struggle would have to continue. But middle ways are emerging, not just in Colorado, but in much of the northern and central tier of Western states. Groups such as the Gunnison, Colo., effort Babbitt adopted as his prototype are increasingly common. Five years ago, none existed.

There are questions, of course. Are these new efforts effective? Will they spread? Or will they serve as fronts behind which the traditional destructive approaches to western landscapes and resources proceed unchecked?

Only time will answer. Today, each of us has a different prediction. To Jeffrey St. Clair, Babbitt's policies are a betrayal. My sense is that the traditional West is shifting on its axis. What had been a tradition-bound, uncritical region is now more open to change. Prompted by the economic failure of the traditional approach, which has left the rural West impoverished by urban standards, and humiliated by national publicity that has made famous the West's shameful treatment of land and wildlife, change has begun. There is no problem finding horror stories where life, and destruction, go on as in the past. But for the first time one also finds hopeful change.

This shift within the West has caught us unprepared. But over time, I would expect most environmentalists to applaud the possibility that environmental values can be integrated more or less voluntarily into ranching and eventually into logging and mining.

It is important to remember that the goal of environmentalism was never to achieve a cultural revolution. The goal was reform and evolutionary change. The goal was to transform how the land and its resources were treated, with minimum effect on local social and cultural values.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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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