A CENTURY of exploitation and abuse by ranchers, miners, and timber interests has left United States public lands in the West in shameful environmental condition. Since these lands are profitable only if they are also bountiful, it is essential that protection of the land itself becomes the "political reality" that drives policy, not the protection of interests that recklessly exploit it.
Those who want public lands protected were relieved when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt announced in February that the Clinton administration would end federal subsidies to timber companies that log, ranchers who graze livestock, and miners who obtain valuable minerals, all on publicly owned land.
But they were stunned when, in an act of political expediency, President Clinton backed away from the commitment in an attempt to win Western senators' votes on his budget package.
Clinton aides have promised that these issues will be revisited in a different venue and time. When he does return to these issues, the president must understand that elimination of the bloated subsidies is crucial to his stated intention to create policies that recognize the intrinsic correlation between environmental protection and economic strength.
True reform of public lands policy turns on the elimination of these three obsolete subsidies.
Current management policy favors destruction over protection; exploitation over sustainability; private profit over public value. Until these subsidies are gone, the White House and Mr. Babbitt will find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to implement a change in land management policies that embrace both financial and environmental goals.
The impacts of the old policies are clear:
* The fees charged to ranchers who graze their cattle and sheep on 280 million acres of public range lands do not cover the annual cost of administering the federal grazing programs or the cost of restoring our land from past and current abuses. The result: vast areas of range lands stripped of their native shrubs and grasses, the destruction of natural habitats of countless fish and wildlife species, soil erosion, and degraded water quality.
* Mining companies, like their predecessors in 1892, still pay no rent or royalty to mine public lands. They cause extensive environmental damage but are not responsible for the costs of cleanup. Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money will have to be spent to clean up the damage done by the multibillion-dollar mining industry.
* Logging in our nation's forests, subsidized by below-cost timber sales and government-built logging roads, has depleted our spectacular ancient forests. Ninety percent of the nation's ancient forests and innumerable plant and animal species, pristine rivers and lakes, valuable ecosystems, and an enormous piece of our natural heritage are lost.
* The quantity and cost, both fiscal and ecological, of our current public lands policies make it clear that a change is long overdue. The new land-management model must give public value equal weight with private profit potential. Resource use and resource protection must be seen as inextricably linked.
It can be done. The US Forest Service has already implemented, at least temporarily, just such a plan. In January the service announced that it would ban clear-cutting for two years in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. The ban was put in place to protect the California spotted owl, and thus preempt the crisis situation now facing the Pacific Northwest.
The decision is significant because it moves the Forest Service away from producing timber and toward providing ecologically healthy forests.
This new approach will also sustain jobs. Logging can continue, but in reduced amounts and under more limited circumstances.
And because the agency's decision emphasizes reduction of brush and other "forest fuels" that contribute to wildfire risks, labor-intensive approaches to thinning forests and fire prevention will help keep people employed.
In order to create a new public lands policy that generates jobs and protects the environment, we need more decisions like the one in California's Sierra Nevada. Protecting the land, so as to sustain its public and private uses, requires us to adopt policies that recognize the value of wildlife habitat, recreation, open space, and resource protection as well as the jobs these resources generate.