Bruce Babbitt And the East-West Political Showdown

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PRESIDENT Clinton has declared ``war on the West,'' and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is the field marshal leading the charge, ``bombarding the West with onerous regulations, blockading public land use, and besieging ranchers, miners, property owners, and their communities.''

So declares a recent 11-page blast from the House Republican Conference and its chairman Rep. Dick Armey (R) of Texas. Among the tools in the Clinton administration's ``radical political agenda,'' according to Mr. Armey: the Endangered Species Act, grazing fees, mining reform, wetlands legislation, the California Desert Bill, and creation of a National Biological Survey to protect the environment.

Political tension between Westerners and Eastern politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, the media and other elites is perennial, but it heats up every so often. In the 1970s, it was the ``sagebrush rebellion.'' More recently it's been the ``wise-use movement,'' a loose confederation of rural grassroots groups, resource-extraction industries, and conservative ideologues. Armey and company have seen the political wisdom of stirring up this pot against their Democratic opponents, one reason why Babbitt has twice been passed over for the US Supreme Court.

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Part of it has to do with the fact that much of the 11 Western states are controlled by the federal government in the form of national parks, national forests, military bases, and the high, dry country managed by the Bureau of Land Management: 49 percent of Wyoming, 41 percent of Arizona, 67 percent of Utah, 64 percent of Idaho, 52 percent of Oregon, 86 percent of Nevada, and half of California.

Even if Babbitt's family started ranching in Arizona over a century ago, he is a suspicious character in the eyes of many rural Westerners. He may have been the popular Democratic governor of a highly Republican state, but he has since headed the League of Conservation Voters. As a Clinton appointee, he pushed hard to reform traditional practices and therefore ways of life that have mythological status across the millions of acres he oversees.

But there is a newer element to this ``war on the West'' debate: the changing demographics of the region. Most Americans west of the Continental Divide now live within a short commute of the interstate corridor running from California to Canada. And most of those lighting out for the smaller towns of Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, and elsewhere - to play or to live - bring with them attitudes and values that differ from those who have worked the land for generations and understandably fear change.

``Rural residents feel, as one local put it, at a crossroads with a rusty compass, no road map, and no gas,'' says fifth-generation rural Coloradan Mary Chapman. Speaking to a conference on public lands at the University of Colorado (where she obtained her doctorate in public administration), Ms. Chapman warned that ``pushing too fast on public lands reforms will weaken the ability of communities to move toward diversified and possibly more `environmentally sustainable' economies.''

And as places like Snowmass, Colo., and Moab, Utah, move from resource-based economies toward recreation and tourism, Chapman raises important questions: ``Are condos less environmentally damaging than cows? Are 10,000 mountain bikers less environmentally damaging to the desert lands and its critters than range cows were? Has the natural environment around Jackson Hole improved now that the town has become a year-round recreation center where service workers are known to camp on public lands for months at a time due to a shortage of housing?''

Babbitt understands these concerns, which is why he has been encouraging local teams representing all points of view to address environmental questions. This is not a ``war on the West'' but much-needed diplomacy that ought to be supported.

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