Western politicians close ranks over regional problems

At a glance, the governors of Colorado and South Dakota are a study in opposites. Colorado's Richard Lamm is slim, baby-faced, and silver-haired. William Janklow is dark and heavyset, his face clearly reflecting the bulldog tenacity for which he is known.

At one time their politics were equally as contrasting. The pro-environmentalist Democrat Lamm hiked to the governorship on the strength of his opposition to locating the Olympic Games in Colorado. The South Dakota Republican, on the other hand, gained local prominence by prosecuting American Indian Movement defendants following the siege at Wounded Knee.

But these two politicians offer a striking example of a unique trend in the Western United States: political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, appear to be closing ranks on a growing number of issues.

There was special significance when, at a break in last weekend's meeting of the Western Governors' Policy Office (WESTPO), Lamm walked up to Janklow and asked jokingly, ''When we first met, did you ever imagine we would be in as complete agreement on an issue as we are now?''

The South Dakotan had just given an address entitled, ''Changing Regional Economies: The West's Wealth in Perspective.'' Some of his talk could almost have been lifted from Lamm's recent book, ''The Angry West.'' This new unity appears to be the political expression of a development which pollster Peter Hart has noted: The Rocky Mountain West has replaced the South as the part of the US with unique concerns most at variance with those of the nation at large.

The problems that have forged this evolving unity and the political benefits which flow from it were illustrated by a meeting Monday in Denver between Interior Secretary James Watt and six Western governors: Lamm, Scott Matheson of Utah, Ted Schwinden of Montana, Ed Herschler of Wyoming, Allen I. Olson of North Dakota, and Bruce Babbitt of Arizona.

It was a meeting born out of the governors' frustration over what they have perceived as a significant gap between administration rhetoric and actions. Despite Mr. Watt's espousal of New Federalism and the necessity of turning more power over to state governments, western governors and their staffs say they have seen little change in the way the Department of the Interior, the West's largest landlord, has acted toward them.

The specific issue was Interior's coal leasing regulations promulgated last summer, but the underlying issue was much deeper: Would Watt be willing to concede to the governors' concerns and adopt a number of changes in the regulations which the governors had agreed upon?

Before the meeting, which the governors had requested, several said they considered it a watershed event, and its outcome would set the tone of their future relationship with Watt. In the past, western governors have been low key in their criticisms of the secretary. While unwilling to describe the conference as a confrontation, the governors made it clear that they were willing to take a harder line in the future should he not accede to their desires. This would mean carrying the matter to the Congress and the courts.

The seriousness was clearly evident on the faces of the governors as they met Watt in Denver. But the secretary was personable, and accepted virtually all of the governors' demands. ''My position is that we have done all you governors have asked, but that now you just want some redundancy. That's all right with me. I have nothing against redundancy,'' Watt summarized.

When the meeting broke up, the governors were clearly pleased. ''I loved the process,'' said Matheson. ''You know, we've been hassling this for over a year individually. Now, it's taken care of. I tell you, I've learned something. From now on we're going to have to get together and work out a common position from the beginning.''

That Secretary Watt should be the object of this political unanimity is quite natural. The presence of the federal government, particularly the Interior Department, in this region has been the glue which has begun to cement Western politicians relationships.

As Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt says,''The federal government is the principal landlord of the West. The federal government is also the water master of the West, operating the plumbing system that rations water, power, and life itself throughout our states. These realities suspend the West in constant tension between the perceived national interest of all Americans in the public domain and the immediate tangible needs and aspirations of those who live on the land and measure survival by the availability of water.''

The federal government's impact on life here, coupled with the region's lack of political power in Washington, D.C., has created a perception that Westerners have little control over their regional destiny. This has led to a feeling that the area is an economic and political ''colony'' of the rest of the country.

Thus the governors have banded together in an attempt to regain more local control over such matters as energy and mineral development, water development, and federal land-use planning.

Now the WESTPO members are trying to bring other Western governors into the fold. To this end, Matheson has contacted others about forming a Western Governors' Association. Last weekend he reported that the result of this spadework was favorable and that WESTPO should work toward the formation of such a group by next spring.

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