Bush's drive for Western balance

In the 2000 election, President Bush carried the nation's prairie and Western counties, from the Mississippi to the Pacific, for one reason: Bill Clinton's anti-Western policies.

Westerners, concluding that Mr. Clinton cared little about their need for federal policies that allowed for economic activity while protecting environmental quality, voted for a change. They did so believing that Mr. Bush's statement, "I understand the Western mentality, and I want the Western mentality represented in this administration," means he intends that his policies will recognize the realities of the rural West and his officials will act as if someone lives there.

Westerners remember Clinton's 1996 closing of 1.7 million acres of federal land in economically hard-pressed southern Utah. Clinton's edict turned an area that had been used for decades for multiple-use activities - such as grazing, motorized recreation, and exploring for and developing energy and minerals - into a de facto wilderness area, to kill plans for an underground coal mine. This mine would have provided 1,000 local jobs and $20 million annually to the local economy, plus clean-burning coal for power generation. Clinton was "troubled" by the job loss, but said, "We can't have mines everywhere."

Clinton's Utah decree was only the most highly publicized of his anti-Western policies. In 1993, while Clinton publicly sympathized with loggers in the Pacific Northwest, his officials schemed privately to end logging, ostensibly to "save" the northern spotted owl.

Later, Clinton's lawyers demanded control of Alaska and Idaho waters. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt plotted to put wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and grizzly bears in Idaho and Montana. He also sought to drive ranchers from federal land and prevent miners and oil and gas operators from using multiple-use lands. Clinton adopted illegal rules for a seven-state region the size of France, shut 60 million acres of national forest, and closed millions of acres of federal lands with illegal monuments.

These actions were in clear violation of a host of federal laws setting forth the manner in which Congress intended federal lands to be managed.

All Americans share an interest in the third of the country owned by the federal government. However, Westerners say, "A chicken is interested in what you have for breakfast; a pig is affected." Thus rural Westerners are affected when denied the ability to use that land, in full compliance with federal and state environmental laws.

Libby, Montana, where 78 percent of Lincoln County lies in the Kootenai National Forest, is an example. For decades, locals worked in the forest as miners or loggers, jobs lost largely to Clinton's policies. Ironically, local plans to convert to tourism with a ski hill were killed by Clinton's forest lockup.

Lincoln County is not alone. Nearly 800,000 acres in Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest, which experts say have enormous potential for energy development and which federal officials admit could be used without harming the environment, were closed because of their "spirituality."

In southeastern Montana, Mr. Babbitt refused to transfer federal coal, as required by Congress, to revitalize Montana's poorest region. In north-central Montana, lands on which wells are already producing natural gas were closed by one of Clinton's last-minute monument decrees. Further west, land mined since the region's earliest days was closed for 20 years! Vast areas in Montana face devastating forest fires because of Clinton's antilogging policies; he diverted funds from firefighting to build his "land legacy."

Thus far, President Bush has ordered a halt to Clinton's last-minute flood of regulations, asked his officials to review Clinton's policies, and convened a panel to respond to the nation's energy crisis. That is correct, given the president's constitutional duty to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." In addition, US attorneys-general have maintained for decades that presidents possess the power, "after [a] further investigation," to rescind orders found "not in the public interest or consistent with the efficient operation of the government."

Further, notwithstanding the Chicken Little cries of environmental groups, the draft documents being reviewed by the Bush administration do not even consider searching for energy in parks or wilderness areas.

Congress put those areas off limits; in fact, only Congress may open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. While protecting parks and wilderness areas, there are vast areas of the West where multiple-use activities, including forestry and the search for much needed oil and gas, could take place in a prudent and thoughtful fashion, just as Congress intended and Westerners planned.

Rural Westerners love the land; they value it and they wish to protect it. However, they also must use it to provide a living for themselves, their families, and their communities. In addition, they wish to enjoy those lands. To date, it appears President Bush does understand Westerners and intends to use Western federal lands to meet the nation's need for natural resources as well as scenic and recreational lands, the West's desire for economic activity that protects the environment, and Americans' wish for a prudent balancing of economic growth and environmental goals.

William Perry Pendley, who was born and raised in Wyoming, is president and chief legal officer of Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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