A chance to do it right in the West


The 2008 election took the West another big step down the path of political realignment that has been underway since the turn of the century. By 2000, the Rocky Mountain West had become essentially a one-party region. All eight of its governors were Republicans, as were 13 of its 16 senators.  In the 2000 election, Al Gore barely carried New Mexico, but all the rest of the region's electoral votes contributed to George W. Bush's razor-thin victory.  And in 2004, Bush took all the electoral votes in the Rockies.

By then, however, the region's political realignment was well underway, and by 2008 it had gained enough momentum to give Barack Obama 19 mountain-state electoral votes. That is the nationally visible tip of an iceberg of political realignment that had been steadily progressing in this region, where five of the eight governors are now Democrats, as are seven of the 16 senators.  Fully a third of the increase in Nancy Pelosi's House majority came from the Rockies, including Walt Minnick's dramatic victory in Idaho, the reddest state in the nation.

It is against this background that Obama's transition team is now recommending possible names for Interior secretary and other public-land posts, and not for decades has it been so crucial that the region's voice be heard and heeded.

What the new West has to say fits perfectly with what Obama has been saying throughout his campaign. This is a time to transcend old ideological and partisan differences nationwide, and it is past time to do the same with the issues that have most deeply divided the West for decades. Western ambassadors like Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer are ideally positioned to remind the new administration that the region has been quietly practicing and perfecting that Obama-like search for common ground for about 20 years, as ranchers, loggers, conservationists, hunters and anglers have worked together to create pragmatic solutions to public land and resource problems.

In the process, this region has produced an impressive roster of savvy and experienced people. John Kitzhaber, for example, who is often mentioned as a potential secretary of the Interior, was a pioneer in encouraging collaborative approaches to salmon, forest and watershed issues during his tenure as governor of Oregon. Sub-cabinet positions might go to people like Courtney White, who has spent years at the Quivira Coalition in Santa Fe bringing ranchers and environmentalists together over grazing issues, or Jan Brown, who, at the Henry's Fork Foundation in Idaho, and later at the Yellowstone Business Partnership, has patiently built trust among farmers, anglers, business leaders and environmentalists all around Yellowstone National Park. These and dozens of other pioneers in the new Western ways of solving tough problems represent a reservoir of talent for the "change we need" in Washington's approach to the West.

But will it happen?  Will the transition team look in this direction for appointments to the key positions affecting the region?  Many Westerners fear a default to the same Beltway-dominated, command-and-control approaches to which Democratic administrations have all too often resorted when filling key public land and resource positions. Much as I like and respect Bruce Babbitt and Jim Lyons, whom Bill Clinton named to oversee the Interior Department and the Forest Service, their policies all too often re-enforced widespread Western perceptions that Democrats were insensitive to the needs of rural or resource-dependent communities. Anything resembling a replay of that pattern would be a gigantic mistake.

Politically, Democrats are poised to continue the region's realignment by delivering 30 or more electoral votes in 2012, and perhaps promoting rising stars like the Democratic mayors of Salt Lake City, Boise and Denver to statewide offices. But presidential appointments that simply swing the pendulum back to a "now it's our turn" approach to public land and resource issues are liable to be perceived as a new "War on the West." That will certainly make it harder to elect or re-elect Western Democrats and harder to hold and expand Obama's foothold in the region.

Now there's an opportunity to move beyond the pendulum swings in policy that produce more gridlock, more litigation, more bitterness and less sustainable protection of Western ecosystems and ways of life. Westerners should be using every ounce of influence they have with the transition team to make sure that opportunity isn't lost.

Daniel Kemmis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Montana.

High Country News Classifieds