The American West is a land of natural resources, spectacular scenery, and myth-tinged tradition. These overlapping - and sometimes conflicting - values now present the Bush administration with knotty political problems.
Administration officials, many of whom come with a background in business and development, are eager to roll back environmental protections favored by former President Clinton and especially by his controversial Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt. They want to slow the designation of national monuments, allow local interests more say in weighing conservation versus development, and change the powerful Endangered Species Act.
All of this comes together in the Pacific Northwest, where a serious drought is forcing federal officials to choose between threatened fish species and farmers whose fields are turning to dust. How the administration - and Western political leaders - deals with this crisis will set the tone for other issues pitting environmental protection against the West's traditional economy.
These days, interest focuses on the Klamath Basin on the Oregon-California border, which includes wildlife refuges as well as farmers growing potatoes, alfalfa, and other crops. A federal judge severely limited water diverted for irrigation this year to protect three fish species threatened with extinction.
Over the Independence Day holiday, a group of farmers and their supporters illegally cracked open an irrigation head gate to let the water flow. It was a symbolic act, overseen by sympathetic law-enforcement officials who declined to arrest anybody. Hours later, the federal Bureau of Reclamation (which operates the Klamath irrigation project) shut off the flow.
Everyone recognizes that a Boston Tea Party-type action will not solve the problem. Administration officials and others who support the farmers say long-term resolution can come only by amending the Endangered Species Act to give economic and social issues greater weight.
"A 'fish first, people last' line of thinking has caused a human tragedy in the Klamath Basin," says David Haddock, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public-interest law organization in Sacramento, Calif., that supports free enterprise and private-property rights. "This is a predicament of the government's making, and government needs to fix it."
Last week, the PLF filed a formal petition with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Commerce Secretary Don Evans urging a convening of the seldom-used Endangered Species Committee - a cabinet-level, seven-member panel commonly called the "God Squad" - to overrule the water shut-off that has affected 1,400 farms and 200,000 acres.
Critics say the federal irrigation project here (which dates back to 1905 and includes seven dams and 185 miles of canals) amounts to a large subsidy for crop production that would not survive in a truly free market. They note that the impact of activities harmful to the Klamath River has cost thousands of jobs in fishing communities downstream.
"The Klamath project is one of the most uneconomical, environmentally damaging in the country," says a source who has worked for the US Bureau of Reclamation. Still, irrigators, businesses that cater to agriculture, and their political supporters see more hope today than before Mr. Bush's election.
But even with a GOP majority in the US House and an administration whose interests tend more toward ranchers and loggers, changing the Endangered Species Act is an uphill battle. Earlier efforts have failed, and moderate Republicans much "greener" than Bush hold key positions in Congress.
"Unfortunately, it probably takes a lot of places like Klamath Falls to get changes in the Endangered Species Act," says US Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon.
Just west of the Klamath Basin, the newly designated Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is the scene of a similar political battle. It's one of 21 national monuments created or enlarged under Mr. Clinton.
Local polls and public meetings here indicate that most people favor protection of the 52,947-acre monument in what is one of the most biologically and geologically diverse parts of North America. But timber and cattle interests have balked, and Ms. Norton has ordered a review.
The administration also wants to revise a ban on new logging roads in one-third of all national forestland, ordered in the last days of the Clinton administration after a lengthy process.
But such moves could be politically risky - especially for an administration that has seen its public support drop, partly because of its stance on environmental issues.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor