War on The West: The sequel

Salazar and Wild Lands vs. the Sagebrush Rebels

  • Paul Larmer


If a new report from the U.S. Senate and Congressional Western Caucus is any indication, the next two years will be long and painful for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as well as for other officials charged with managing natural resources in the West. The "War on Western Jobs Report" penned by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the new chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands, lays out grievances against the few environmental policies promoted by the Obama administration.

"There is a renewed 'War on the West,'" warn the authors, both Republicans. "This administration's anti-business, anti-multiple use agenda threatens Western communities. It is killing jobs and undermining state and local budgets."

In the section titled "Job Killing Policy # 3: Impeding Domestic Energy," Barrasso and Bishop attack Salazar's decision last year to cancel 77 natural gas leases in Utah's canyon country, some on the borders of national parks. They also criticize new Bureau of Land Management policies that call for the consideration of wildlife, air and water quality and other values before leasing public lands for industrialization.

"The administration has put vital American energy resources off-limits and arbitrarily cancelled existing lease rights," they charge.

Spinning sensible conservation measures as an act of war is a well-worn tactic here in the West. In the 1990s, conservative lawmakers labeled Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's attempt to modernize mining and grazing programs on the public lands a "War on the West." It worked. Roused by the notion that the feds were out to destroy the region and its ranching and mining culture -- and backed with industry money -- a small army of Westerners squelched most of the reforms. These days, despite the soaring deficit, no one much talks about imposing a royalty on minerals extracted from federal lands, or charging anything near market rates for the right to graze livestock.

When the Bush administration took over, all notions of reform -- or even of honoring the existing environmental laws governing public lands -- were thrown out the door. Through a series of administrative orders that "streamlined" environmental reviews and expedited leasing and drilling, George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Interior Secretary Gale Norton (who now works for Royal Dutch Shell Oil) made energy extraction the top priority. The directives coincided with rising oil and natural gas prices, setting off an unprecedented petro-boom in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Wherever the industry pointed, the Bureau of Land Management doled out leases - tens of thousands of them covering tens of millions of acres.

Though the Bush directives scarred vast areas of land, conservative lawmakers said not a word, while most conservationists assumed their customary defensive stance, protesting leases on the most scenic and ecologically important lands, pushing for more aggressive regulations at the state level and waiting for the day when a friendlier administration moved to town.

Enter Ken Salazar. Though it has moved slowly, Salazar's Interior Department has finally started to assert its vision. In addition to the oil and gas reforms, Salazar announced in December that the BLM would again consider protecting lands with outstanding wilderness qualities -- an authority that, for the first time, Interior had ceded under Bush. These shifts bring some badly needed balance back to public land management.

Predictably, though, they have provoked the alarmist crowd. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch told The Deseret News that the wilderness policy "is a brazen attempt to kowtow to radical environmental groups by locking up more public lands in Utah and other states."

Now that the Republicans control the House, Secretary Salazar will become all too familiar with the walk to the House Resources Committee chambers. Chairman Doc Hastings, from Washington state, has already promised to grill Salazar on his wilderness policy in the coming weeks. Barrasso and Bishop will also get to take their shots. Most likely, all will blame the administration for the recent slowdown in public-lands drilling, even though depressed natural gas prices and new gas-field finds in the East are the cause, not administrative policy changes.

The rhetoric will be hot, but let's hope Salazar and the administration resist the bullying. They need to send a strong message: Most Westerners see the War on the West for the trumped up media sound bite that it is. We just want our public resources -- including wildlife and wilderness --managed with care.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's executive director in Paonia, Colorado.

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