Bush team's land ethos: Give locals more control

Critics say that results in White House ceding too much power to industry on crucial environmental issues.

Reeling from public disapproval over a domestic agenda perceived as anti-environment, the Bush administration is drawing its own green line in the sand.

The latest example: the Dry Tortugas National Park, located along the far southern tip of Florida, where Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced last week that a biologically rich coral reef and commercial fishing interests will be protected through an innovative ocean management plan.

The intent is to show that federal management of public resources can be both sensitive to ecological concerns and receptive to the economic needs of local citizens.

"It's a cornerstone of Secretary Norton's view that government has to do a better job of listening to local people and bringing them into the process when making decisions that affect their lives," says Interior Department spokesman Mark Pfeifle.

But as the administration's environmental policy continues to evolve, increasingly the question is: Who, exactly, is the White House deferring to?

Critics are accusing President Bush of allowing natural resource exploiters - not average citizens - to set the agenda for America's public resources.

In the West, the administration is stirring controversy for giving rural states - most notably Idaho - and resource-extraction industries an unprecedented opportunity to reject federal plans on a number of fronts.

Among recent administration actions that have upset environmentalists:

* The failure of the Justice Department to defend the Clinton-era plan to place 60 million acres of virgin national forestland off limits to road construction.

* Federal attorneys' refusal last week to appeal a court ruling in Idaho that hands over federal water to private irrigators instead of guaranteeing its passage to a national wildlife refuge.

* Ms. Norton's giving in to drought-stricken Klamath Valley farmers in Oregon, who wanted to divert federal water into irrigation canals at the expense of two endangered fish.

* The Justice Department's closed-door deal with the snowmobile industry earlier this summer to halt a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

The administration defends these actions as an increase in local control that was severely lacking in the previous administration.

The halt on the snowmobile ban and the Clinton-era roadless plan, for example, are efforts to garner more comment from local people, according to Mr. Pfeifle. The administration simply wants to ensure that tourism, promoters, loggers, miners, and motorized recreators are not left out since there are jobs and economic livelihoods at stake, Pfeifle says.

Others, though, see it differently. According to Thomas Power, economics professor at the University of Montana, the administration is bucking public opinion and the moderate wing of the Republican Party.

"When the president talks about 'listening to locals,' he doesn't mean listening to the local population, which supports conservation. He means listening to local business leaders and corporate executives who profit from developing our public lands," says Professor Power.

The debate over "local citizen control" is playing out with particular pointedness in the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness of Idaho and Montana, where Norton has shelved a government plan to reintroduce grizzly bears.

Eight years in the making, the plan was created by environmentalists and representatives of the timber industry. It gave local citizens a strong say in deciding how bears should be managed and won the endorsement of former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a close friend of Bush, and the approval of Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under Clinton.

"If ever there was a locally led alternative, it was the citizen's management proposal in the Selway-Bitterroot," says Ms. Clark, now senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. "It would have been the prototype for species reintroduction for wildlife across the country. When this administration shelved it, they walked away from the very issue - local control - they claim to be touting."

But others, like U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, are cheering Norton's stand. "It is clear she is paying attention to local concerns and local communities," Senator Craig says. "To reintroduce grizzly bears is to experiment with the lives of Idahoans."

Environmentalists don't disagree with all of Bush's environment decisions. For instance, they lauded Bush this summer for scaling back proposals to drill for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. Last week's plan to protect the marine ecosystem around Dry Tortugas National Park, which sets aside 42 percent of the waters as a development-free natural area, also won praise from some of the president's critics.

"This notion of local control and local involvement in federal policymaking is terrific," Clark says. "I agree that we are not going to achieve meaningful conservation by dictate from Washington, but neither should Washington set out to abandon its duty to represent the public's interest. So far, it's unclear what this administration has in mind."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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