IN proposing to reform the management of natural resources in the American West, the Clinton administration is taking on a multitude of entrenched special interests and more than a century of history.
It also is assuming that along with the shift to a more urbanized West, national values have changed to favor preservation of the landscape over the extraction of resources for economic gain.
A dozen years ago, opposition to similar attempts at reform by the Carter administration prompted the so-called "sagebrush rebellion" by conservative Westerners and their allies in state and federal office.
Point man in the Clinton effort is Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona who is a trained geologist, a lawyer specializing in water law, and, until a few weeks ago, head of the activist environmental group League of Conservation Voters.
"We're going to take on all the special interests in the country all at the same time," Secretary Babbitt said following President Clinton's Feb. 17 speech to Congress on his economic plan.
These economic interests are governed by what University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson terms "the lords of yesterday." Professor Wilkinson describes them in his recent book, "Crossing the Next Meridian," as "a battery of 19th-century laws, policies, and ideas ... usually coupled with extravagant subsidies ... that arose under wholly different social and economic conditions but that remain in effect due to inertia, powerful lobbying forces, and lack of public awareness."
These "lords" of law and practice, Wilkinson says, cover mining, timber, grazing, hydropower dams along the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, and the storage and diversion of water throughout the rest of the West. Taken together, they represent the essence of a debate that began a century ago between wilderness enthusiast John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to head the new United States Forest Service and who advocated a utilitarian approach to natural resources.
Those laws still on the books today include the 1872 Mining Act, the Reclamation Act of 1902 (which began a series of massive water projects), and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. Starting about 20 years ago, attempts were made at reform by directing the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to manage the hundreds of millions of acres of land they control throughout the West under a concept called "multiple use."
Multiple use, which includes recreation, watershed and wildlife protection, and resource extraction, was supposed to balance and therefore satisfy competing interests. But as recent political battles over such dwindling species as the spotted owl and salmon have shown, it has not worked out that way.
"Multiple use skirts the central reality that in the new urbanizing West there is no longer enough space to accommodate every competing use on every section of public domain," Babbitt told a University of Colorado symposium several years ago. "Commodity production, whether of timber, minerals, or livestock, is increasingly infringing on the broader public values of open space, wildlife, wilderness, and recreation. Choices will have to be made...."
Babbitt proposes replacing multiple use with what he calls "dominant public use." This, he says, "would be a mandate to reconsider destructive resource exploitation that is of marginal economic importance."
Now that Babbitt has in essence become the "national landlord" for much of the country, such abstractions are bumping up against tough political realities.
For example, Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas for several years has been trying to change hard-rock mining law so that title to federal land could not be obtained for as little as $2.50 an acre and so that miners would have to pay royalties on minerals they extract (as is the case with coal and natural gas).
Other would-be reformers want to raise the fee for grazing domestic animals on federal land (currently $1.92 per cow and calf or five sheep per month), which critics say is far below the market value. Still others have been working to stop the below-cost sale of timber from federal forestland, which costs Uncle Sam millions of dollars in losses every year, as well as the degradation of ecosystems by clear-cutting and road-building.
In response to this new administration strategy, a counter-environmental movement called "wise use" has emerged, utilizing more sophisticated means of fund-raising and communication than the "sagebrush rebellion" of the Carter years. It also involves a network of grass-roots groups in communities dependent on traditional resource-based economies.
Now, such groups are focusing their organizing efforts against certain Interior Department appointees, many of whom (like Babbitt) have a background of environmental activism. Among these are Wilderness Society president George Frampton and Bonnie Cohen of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to be assistant secretaries of the Interior Department; and Jim Baca (who raised state grazing fees and advocated mining royalties as New Mexico Lands Commissioner), to be director of the Bureau of Land Man agement.
In a "fax alert" to members of the Multiple-Use Land Alliance, wise-use leader Chuck Cushman last week warned that such appointments, if confirmed by the US Senate, could lead to "hundreds of new ghost towns."
While Babbitt and crew seem determined to effect significant changes in US resource management practices, they realize the task will be difficult. Reforming the Bureau of Reclamation alone, Babbitt has said, "will be about as easy as transitioning the Kremlin to a market economy."