Like a ghost from the 1970s, when Republicans and Democrats teamed up to pass major environmental laws, bipartisan politics has reappeared in Washington, D.C.
The just-passed Omnibus Public Land Management Act has something for nearly everyone, including more than 2 million acres of new wilderness, more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers; expansions of the national parks and monuments system; water projects for California salmon and Navajo development; federal land sales, trades and giveaways and much, much more more.
While the Omni affects all 50 states, the West will see the most results. The act also gives congressional approval to a Western green bureaucracy created by the Clinton administration -- the National Landscape Conservation System -- that helps run 26 million acres of the best BLM holdings.
Keeping the Omni package intact required wrangling. Nevertheless, the Senate passed it March 19 by a nearly four-to-one margin; then the House passed it two-to-one. The opponents were mainly Republicans who don't want to limit oil-and-gas drilling, but many Republicans joined the Democratic stampede to support the package. Every Western Democrat voted for it, and Western Republicans split 11-32, with 11 in favor.
When President Obama signed the package March 30, he hailed it as "that rare end product of what happens when Americans of all parties and places come together in common purpose to consider something more than the politics of the moment."
Similar rhetoric accompanied the 1970s bipartisan burst. Back then, overwhelming margins in Congress worked with Republican presidents Nixon and Ford and Democratic President Carter to make the bedrock laws that protect air and water quality and endangered species. They also set up the frameworks for forest and range management, environmental impact statements and regulation of toxic substances. Those politics centered on D.C., which eventually became a problem for the environmental movement, because the Republican Party has often been opposed to federal regulations.
But the Omni package drew not only Republican votes, it also contains many elements that were sponsored or co-sponsored by Republicans. That list includes a grazing compromise in Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (23,000 acres of wilderness and possible buyouts of grazing permits); a ban on drilling in 1.2 million acres of national forest in Wyoming; protection for miles of crystallized riverbed in New Mexico's Snowy River Cave; and the establishment of long-distance trails across the Northwest and Southwest.
The bipartisanship grew from the grassroots, in negotiations between local stakeholders. For eight years, for example, Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo shepherded a half-million-acre wilderness deal -- for the Owyhee region's desert and canyons -- to get it in the Omni package. The terms were worked out by consensus in a group that includes county commissioners, ranchers, environmentalists and the Shoshone-Paiute tribe.
The Owyhee deal calls for grazing reductions on 340,000 acres. In return, regulations will be eased on 199,000 acres that had been wilderness-study areas so that ranchers can use vehicles to tend herds. A new grazing-science center will be set up, run by the University of Idaho, and ranchers hope it will advise the Bureau of Land Management to further relax regulations.
"The whole thing (in the Owyhee) was a classic collaborative effort," says Craig Gehrke, The Wilderness Society's Idaho director. "Everyone's guard was up at first. You have to break that down to develop trust and understanding of the other person's problems."
Negotiations in Washington County, Utah, led to protection of more desert, mountains and rivers, plus an authorization to sell 5,000 to 9,000 acres of federal land near St. George, to allow the city room to grow. Some locals had called for selling 20,000 acres or more, but environmentalists whittled it down. The deal was sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Bennett and supported by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
National groups such as The Wilderness Society pushed the Omni package, though they disagreed with some details. Montana's Wilderness Watch, a small, purist group, complained that the Idaho and Utah deals "contain numerous harmful provisions that would open these areas to inappropriate activities such as the routine use of ATVs for herding livestock ... and habitat manipulation by state fish and game agencies."
Carrying out some of the terms will cost billions, and governments and private donors are expected to provide funding over the next 10 to 15 years. Uncertainties remain, but even so, the Omni package inspires many people who are working on more Western conservation deals. It also gives a much-needed lift to all of us who are tired of partisan divides.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman, Montana.
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