West's Balancing Act: Economy, Nature

Opening of National Petroleum Reserve last week is latest effort by states to take charge

When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced last week that part of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska would be opened to oil drilling, the state's governor was quick to call it "an Alaska plan."

And so it was. The plan to open the reserve for the first time since President Warren Harding set it up 75 years ago was initially sought by Gov. Tony Knowles (D), and its drafting involved full input from state and local officials.

This is just one example of a new effort by Western states to play a stronger role in managing their states' environment. From clearing the hazy air around the Grand Canyon to saving Pacific salmon, they are looking for ways to balance protection and development while avoiding legal battles like the infamous one involving the northern spotted owl and the logging industry.

"Across the West, governors are developing new approaches to protect the environment and preserve natural resources by focusing on collaboration, innovation, and incentives, not courtroom confrontations," says James Souby, executive director of the Denver-based Western Governors' Association.

For example, Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) of Utah took the lead in bringing together industry officials, environmentalists, tribal leaders, federal land managers, and state agencies to craft an emissions-reduction plan for the Colorado Plateau. That plan - covering a nine-state region - recently was forwarded to Environmental Protection Agency officials in Washington with hopes that it will influence the EPA's upcoming decision on new rules governing the emission of sulfur dioxide and other chemicals that are causing haze in national parks and wilderness areas.

"Federal agencies should be participants, not taskmasters, and the people most involved - those who live, work, and play on the lands involved - should play a more enhanced role," says Governor Leavitt.

Protecting salmon

When it became clear that coastal salmon and steelhead in Oregon were spiraling downward toward extinction, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) brought together industries and landowners to craft and fund a plan to protect and restore fish habitat along the state's rivers and streams.

Even though the federal government could have listed the fish under the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service blessed the plan and did not go ahead with the listing, which could have brought more-draconian measures.

This summer, the 18-state Western Governors' Association adopted a set of principles designed to balance environmental protection with economic development. These include an emphasis on using economic incentives, relying on independent scientists to determine environmental needs, and seeking collaboration between all "stakeholders."

"We need to empower people to do the right thing," says Oregon's Governor Kitzhaber. "And it won't work if it's done with a big stick and no carrot."

There's a recognition here that as the "old West" of ranchers, miners, and loggers shifts to a "new West" based more on high-tech and recreation, new outlooks and approaches are needed. "People are moving into our Western states with new businesses and new values," says Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer (R). "That changes the political dynamics for our states."

All of this collaboration fits into what Mr. Babbitt (a former Arizona governor) has been trying to do during his very active and sometimes controversial tenure as Interior secretary.

While Babbitt views the Endangered Species Act as a primary tool in environmental protection - in a Monitor interview, he once called it "transcendent, overarching ... encompassing all types of land use and development issues" - he also stresses the law's flexibility, particularly when interest groups and levels of government work together to head off what he calls "train wrecks" like the spotted owl.

But collaboration rarely means that all interested parties are happy with the outcomes.

Balancing act

Last week's proposal to open up part of the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to oil drilling was criticized by both environmentalists and the oil industry. It was, as Babbitt said, part of the "eternal process of trying to reconcile contrasting values."

"Will everyone get what they want? No, they won't," he said. "We have barred, or limited, oil and gas development in the key environmentally sensitive areas.... At the same time, we will be allowing oil and gas development on almost 4 million acres."

Engaging state and local governments more fully in land-use decisions also does not necessarily avert legal confrontation.

Although federal agencies agreed to let Oregon design its own recovery plan for coastal salmon, environmental groups sued in federal court. They argued that under the Endangered Species Act, agencies couldn't decide not to list species in cases where scientific evidence pointed toward extinction.

In June, a federal court ruled in favor of the environmentalists, and the National Marine Fisheries Service announced last week that it would go ahead with the listing. Both the fisheries service and the state of Oregon are appealing the ruling.

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