Land Management And Regional Politics

TAKE the 11 contiguous states west of the 100th meridian, discount the two most populous (California and Washington, which are largely urban), and you get a vast expanse of real estate with less than 7 percent of the country's population rattling around between mountains and sagebrush. Now send those states' senators out East to Washington, D.C., and - thanks to the United States Constitution - you see their political clout jump nearly threefold relative to head count back home.

Here you have one of the most interesting regional political dynamics in US politics as well as a key reason for the accelerating debate over federal land management.

The Clinton administration bumped up against this dynamic last week when a majority of the Senate - led by a bloc of Westerners - voted for a one-year moratorium on raising fees to graze cattle on public lands. ``A major victory for small ranchers and townspeople who live in America's West,'' Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico called it.

The administration wants to raise those fees 130 percent over the next two years (not that onerous a figure when one notes that the $1.86 currently paid per cow and calf each month accounts for only about 5 percent of the cost of ranching).

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt vows to fight the moratorium, which was attached to his department's 1994 budget, in the House - where, importantly, rural lawmakers have relatively less clout.

This tussle over grazing fees is part of the administration's broader plan to take better care of federal lands environmentally impacted by other resource industries as well, including logging and mining. The fee in fact is a relatively minor issue - a ``straw man to draw attention from management issues,'' according to an Interior Department memo leaked to Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho.

But it doesn't take a cynic to note that the fee is a straw man used by the cattle industry as well. Even Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona says ranchers could handle a doubling of the fee over four years.

The real concern here is the increasing political push to limit grazing on public lands for justifiable environmental reasons like erosion and water quality.

The same was just as true of the spotted owl, the grizzly bear, and other dwindling species in timber-rich Western states. ``Owls versus jobs'' became an effective rallying cry for the industry and its friends in Congress unwilling to deal with the real issue, which was vast overcutting on private timberlands and (with the collusion of federal agencies) public forests as well.

For 12 years of Republican administrations, Northwest lawmakers were able to fend off environmentalists and their congressional supporters from outside the region on behalf of the timber industry. The trees came down in record numbers (many for export) until a Reagan-appointed federal judge stepped in on behalf of endangered species.

The issues and arguments are contemporary, but President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Babbitt, and others are really contending with more than 100 years of history. It is a history that includes major subsidies for resource extraction, such as government-built logging roads and royalty-free mining on federal lands. The attitude of many Westerners over the years has been summed up by one historian (only half in jest) as: ``Give us more money and leave us alone.''

Changing this history single-handedly will be very difficult, and there's no guarantee of success. Two days after Babbitt's rebuff in the Senate, major business and industry groups in Washington (chemical and paper manufacturers, oil and gas drillers, and timber companies among them) joined forces to ask that Congress investigate the Clinton administration's use of executive orders to institute environmental policy.

The companies and their lobbying organizations naturally want such policy to go through Congress, where they have a lot more influence. It sounded very much like what Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) said in reference to Babbitt's attempt to raise grazing fees single-handedly: ``Policy decisions of this magnitude should not be the sole responsibility of appointed federal officials who have no electoral accountability to the American people.'' Or to traditional special interests in the West, he might have added.

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