Dole, Clinton Duel For Western Voters Over Environment

GOP contender uses Babbitt as favorite foil

In his trip to a lumber mill in northern California this week, Bob Dole joined a long line of Republicans accusing President Clinton of conducting a "war on the West."

The ploy worked in the 1994 mid-term elections across much of the region when Republicans ran specifically against Mr. Clinton and his controversial Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Democratic candidates for Congress and statehouses (including some incumbents) fell left and right, particularly in rural areas dependent on ranching, mining, and logging.

Indeed, railing against government interference from back East is as much a part of Western tradition as are jeans and big hats.

Westerners "usually regarded the federal government much as they would regard a particularly scratchy wool shirt in winter," Richard White, a University of Washington history professor, has observed. "It was all that was keeping them warm, but it still irritated them."

Traditional Westerners still complain - these days about environmental-protection laws and efforts to curb subsidies for extractive industries on federal land.

Mr. Dole was playing to these potential voters during his visit to Redding, Calif., Monday (and to Billings, Mont., the day before), pledging that "when I am president, the West will receive cooperation rather than confrontation from the White House."

And the reaction at the Dole rallies was particularly enthusiastic when the GOP presidential candidate said, "It's time to get rid of Bruce Babbitt and appoint a new secretary of the interior."

Mr. Babbitt seems an inviting target here. He has been a big supporter of the Endangered Species Act, which critics say has cost jobs. Early in this presidential term, Babbitt tried to raise grazing fees on public land. And he has ridiculed the 1872 mining law that critics say still lets miners reap billions in revenues from precious metals at a relative cost of pennies in fees to mine federal land.

But Babbitt, and therefore Clinton, has several things going for him in this latest skirmish in a battle that's gone on for a century.

He's successfully shown - especially in the key state of California - that plans for protecting endangered species can be done in cooperation with local governments and developers.

With Republican state officials and private land owners, Babbitt recently announced a 38,000-acre conservation plan to protect 44 rare plants and animals in Orange County, Calif. - not exactly a liberal, pro-environment bastion.

Meanwhile, Americans around the country increasingly see federal lands out West as part of their heritage and domain. The Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Chicago Sun-Times this week both editorialized against "salvage logging" proposals favored by conservative Western lawmakers.

The demographics of the West also are changing in a direction that favors environmental protection and Babbitt's position. For example, there now are more jobs in Oregon in computer chips than in wood chips, and many regional economists say that a uniquely attractive environment is great for an economy that continues to outpace the rest of the country.

"It makes no sense to threaten the entire economic viability of a region by degrading its natural environment in the hopes of saving a declining industry and its limited jobs," asserts Thomas Power, who chairs the economics department at the University of Montana. "Especially when it is the very quality of the region's natural landscapes that is attracting our fastest growing industries."

Even in Montana - home of "wise-use" anti-environmentalists and antigovernment "freemen" - the vast majority of those surveyed say regulations to protect the environment shouldn't be loosened, even if such regulations hinder the state's economy.

At the same time, there is mounting opposition from conservatives and environmentalists to government subsidies on such things as logging, mining, and ranching. The conservative Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., calls the 340,000 miles of logging roads built over the past 20 years by the United States Forest Service a form of "corporate welfare."

Still, Babbitt remains a lightening rod for Republican opposition to the Clinton administration west of the 100th meridian.

On Capitol Hill, Babbitt's main nemesis is Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, who chairs the Resources Committee in the House. From his powerful post, Mr. Young has blasted Babbitt for "rampant mismanagement" of the Interior Department, charged the secretary with misusing public funds by attending partisan events while on official trips, and accused Babbitt of using "scare tactics" to argue against belt-tightening in his department. "The management of the Department of Interior is a disgrace," he says. Babbitt denies all charges.

As a senator, Dole didn't show much interest in environmental issues. His main effort - a bill to strengthen private-property rights - has yet to be passed in the Republican Congress. But in California (where he trails in the polls) and in the rest of the region (where Clinton faces an uphill battle), he hopes to strike electoral gold in the "war on the West."

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