DENVER — Easterners just don't get it.
Life in the West is not simple and the living is not easy. Moreover, Washington policymakers who think a pair of wingtips qualifies as recreational wear are ill-equipped to make decisions about the rugged landscapes of the Rocky Mountain West.
Such is the long-standing complaint of Western lawmakers. Now, though, four congressmen from the region are mounting an unusual campaign to sway thinking on Capitol Hill: an "educational tour" of the West for their colleagues.
The junket is these lawmakers' answer to lobbies formed by other regions of the US, which have wielded greater influence on the Hill in recent years. The cold-climate states have their Northeast-Midwest Institute and California its Institute for Federal Policy Research. Now, these Rocky Mountain officials are hoping a trip to the West's wide open spaces can be just as effective at turning attention to key issues for this region.
"For too long, members of Congress have learned about our issues from the national environmental lobby inside the Beltway," says Met Johnson of the Western States Coalition, a Utah-based property-rights group that is picking up the $200,000 tab. "Through this trip we hope to put a human face on the complex land-use debate Western citizens face every day."
A bone to pick
To be sure, the four representatives who are hosting the "tour" - Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Rick Hill of Montana, Jim Hansen of Utah, and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming - will offer colleagues a conservative Republican's view of the Western agenda. Excursions to Yellowstone National Park, national forests in Idaho and Montana, and mining and oil operations in Utah and Wyoming are intended to highlight issues traditionally dear to Westerners - property rights, water sovereignty, natural resource management, and reform of the Endangered Species Act.
"I just hope the folks back East realize they're going to hear a biased and slanted viewpoint," says Roger Flynn, director of the Western Mining Action Project, a nonprofit environmental law center in Colorado. "They aren't going to have a counterpoint offered. There won't be a frank discussion of both sides of the issues. And I'm sure they're not going to be touring clear-cut forests, or visiting places that have been strip-mined."
Part of the lawmakers' intent is to shore up eroding support among GOP moderates, some of whom recently sided with Democrats on environmental votes. Last spring, in fact, it was the moderates who blocked a Republican attempt to exempt flood-control projects from the Endangered Species Act.
But the invitation is open to all House members. Among those who've signed up to play tourist on the four-day trip, which begins tomorrow, are lawmakers from Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Louisiana. Also on the guest list is the entire House GOP leadership: Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, and majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas.
The trip grew out of a conversation last winter among Western States Coalition members, who delved into the list of issues "critical to life in the Western United States," says Mr. Johnson. The coalition, which represents state legislators and elected officials in 12 Western states, decided that bringing House members to the West might help them understand concerns of public-land states.
While the West historically has been dominated by Republican leaders (barely a handful of Democratic governors, senators, and representatives can be found in the Rocky Mountain West), environmentalists still maintain a visible presence in the region. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, for example, boasts 25,000 members who favor increased protection of federal lands from industries like logging, mining, grazing, and oil and gas exploration.
Ideal versus reality
Still, in communities like American Fork, Utah, most residents continue to charge that Washington lawmakers haven't begun to grasp the real-life struggles of Westerners.
"People back East like the idea that there are open spaces and wild animals left in the world. They simply enjoy the idea that a pristine place exists. Well, that's a nice ideal. But they don't see the reality of what it's like for the people who have to live here and survive," says Jennifer Green, who recently returned to her hometown after a lobbying stint in Washington.
"To survive out here, we need to be able to use some of the resources like minerals and timber.... Reality does have to enter in." As Ms. Green sees it, "People who haven't been here just don't understand this."