West's New Era: From Mining to `Modem Cowboys'

``ECOSYSTEM management ... paradigm shift ... `modem cowboys' ... biodiversity ... footloose businesses.'' A dizzying new lexicon is being laid over the traditional economy, culture, and social structure of the American West.

A battalion of Clinton officials came to Colorado recently to declare that a new era is inevitable, and many academic experts, government land managers, and other observers agree. If such forecasts are borne out, radical changes are afoot for the public lands that make up much, and in some cases most, of the western states. And this could mean major change for communities and private landholders as well.

In fact, as was pointed out at a three-day gathering in late September at the University of Colorado at Boulder, such changes already are occurring in parts of the region. Towns like Dubois, Wyo., and Kremmling, Colo., are actively and successfully shifting their local economies in the wake of recent mill closings - and not just in the direction of tourism and retirement havens.

The natural beauty of places like Livingston, Mont.; Rexburg, Idaho; and Bend, Ore., are attracting ``modem cowboys'' and ``footloose businesses'' that can operate from just about anywhere via fax and computer.

``Our most important resource is not what we can dig up, or chop down, or grow on the land,'' says Wilderness Society resource economist Ray Rasker, who is based in Bozeman, Mont. ``It's the skills and ingenuity of the people and the quality of life. This is what is driving the economy of the West today.'' Shifting job base

Dr. Rasker points out that while Montana lost 7,500 resource-based jobs over the past two decades, it gained 141,000 jobs in other sectors such as health care, financial services, and education. In Nevada, just one gambling casino - the Mirage - employs more people than the state's entire agriculture and ranching industries.

Many professionals in the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, who for decades have viewed their jobs as supporting traditional Western industries heavily reliant on federal lands, like mining, ranching, and logging, now emphasize environmental protection for the hundreds of millions of acres they oversee.

``Sustainable economic development depends on a deep and abiding land-stewardship ethic, which places paramount importance on the protection and maintenance of ecosystem integrity and stability,'' asserts John DeVilbiss, a Forest Service regional economist for the five-state Rocky Mountain region.

The Forest Service, he says, has shifted emphasis from ``community stability'' (ensuring an even flow of logs, for example) to ``rural development'' (looking for new kinds of jobs).

``I'm convinced that change is coming, and that it's inevitable,'' says Dan Beard, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees dams, reservoirs, irrigation systems, and other major water projects in the West. His comments last month to a western public-lands conference were echoed by senior officials from other federal agencies, the Western Governors' Association, and a group of Indian tribes.

Like many others pushing for such change, Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of the most-forceful Western lawmakers, says the focus should be on treating public lands with greater environmental sensitivity. ``Ecosystem management'' is the current buzzword. ``We are going to have long-term sustainability on this land, on watersheds, and ecosystems,'' he says. ``It's going to happen.'' Realignment of lands

To protect complete ecosystems, says Interior Department solicitor general John Leshy, the federal government may have to acquire more land. This could involve land exchanges with states and private owners. Federal agencies may also relinquish control of millions of acres to other governmental entities and private interests.

``We need to realign and reconfigure public lands in many ways,'' Mr. Leshy says.

Given economic and bureaucratic special interests, however, none of this will happen quickly or without political conflict. ``There hasn't been a basic change in approach in about 100 years,'' observes Robert Nelson, an Interior Department economist for almost 20 years before he recently joined the University of Maryland faculty. Federal land management, he says, ``is drowning in procedures, and the procedures don't work.''

``It sounds great, but public agencies like mine are going to have to pull it off, and it won't be easy,'' said Jim Baca, director of the Bureau of Land Management, responsible for 270 million acres of surface land and 570 million acres of subsurface minerals.

The difficulty comes because, as James Huffman, a professor at Lewis and Clark Northwestern School of Law in Portland, Ore., says: ``Public lands are inevitably political lands.''

When 59 senators on Sept. 14 voted against an increase in federal grazing fees for a handful of constituents - only about 25,000 ranchers throughout the West - the power of a traditional way of life was amply demonstrated. It seems certain, therefore, that this way of life will have to be considered while shifting to a more environmentally benign management of Western public lands.

``Changes are upon us, and we know it,'' says Don Snow, director of the Northern Lights Research & Education Institute in Missoula, Mont. ``But any effort will fail if it seems to be steamrollering the traditional users of the public lands.''

Speaking of the values represented by rural communities, David Getches, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law, says: ``We need that touchstone.'' This will involve working closely with communities over an extended period of time, as DeVilbiss and his colleagues have been doing in a five-county area in southwestern Colorado.

``We have to look beyond the legalities,'' says Marla Mansfield, a professor at the University of Tulsa (Okla.) College of Law. ``Property identified with individuality should be given more deference than property identified merely with investment.''

The interests of American Indians will also have to be taken into account as federal land management evolves toward a new era, says David Lester, a member of the Creek Tribe of Oklahoma and the executive director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. Mr. Lester points out that the native American population in the US is growing 3 percent a year, ``an explosion'' rate that is 50 percent faster that the country as a whole. This doubling every 25 years, Lester says, ``has significant and inevitable consequences not only for public land management, but for how private rights in the countryside are seen as well.'' Uncharted territory

While ``ecosystem management'' may be a shorthand description for the way in which federal lands - and also private lands - are to be cared for in the coming years, it remains largely uncharted territory, even for scientists and other experts.

``Ecosystems are not more complicated than we think, they're more complicated than we can think,'' said Will Murray, conservation-program director for the Nature Conservancy's western regional office. ``It's a term that doesn't have any inherent scale to it. The scale depends on what the values are you're after.''

To Lester, the issue is more profound than lines on a map, endangered species, or outmoded government subsidies.

``We need to begin to think holistically,'' he said to a crowd of several hundred bureaucrats and academics who grew still as he spoke. ``We have to focus more on the question of who we are. Then what we do will fall into place, and the tools will evolve.''

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