An environmental battleground

Published October 10, 2004 2:02 am
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WASHINGTON - John Kerry's land policy menu for the West has a hearty dose of Northeastern environmentalism, a side of Clinton-era reformation and a helping of the consensus-building philosophy known as "Enlibra."

"It would be more balanced," says Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Democratic presidential contender's Western advisory team. "There would be more acknowldgement that the public lands are not just for extractive industries, but also for recreational and tourism purposes."

"Multiple-use" is the land-use doctrine that politicians courting Westerners have proclaimed as a mantra since the 1970s. But the last two occupants of the White House interpreted that standard in stark contrast.

Democratic President Bill Clinton and his Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, presided over a period of land conservation initiatives that critics dubbed the "War on the West."

The past four years, the administration of Republican President George Bush has re-written regulations and crafted policies that generally favor energy and mining industries, drawing not only the expected outcry from environmentalists, but also the surprisingly strong resentment of sportsmen concerned over the loss of blue-ribbon trout streams and prime hunting spots.

Kerry's challenge in charting a course for the West from the White House will be to find the circuitous route between the two extremes, says environmental politics analyst John Freemuth of Boise State University.

"The question is, will Kerry learn from what Clinton and Babbitt were trying to do at the end of their administration, trying to push the collaborative stuff, instead of just proclaiming a bunch of new national monuments and saying to opponents, 'The hell with you,' " says Freemuth, senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

Helping plot Kerry's approach is a team of Western policy advisors that includes Udall and his cousin, Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. It was Kitzhaber who brainstormed with former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, now head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, to develop the "Enlibra" collaborative approach to environmental disputes.

Possible contenders for Interior Secretary in a Kerry administration include former Colorado congressman Tim Wirth and former Clinton administration Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan.

But Kerry will have to overcome his own pro-environmental pedigree to convince skeptic Westerners that all the talk of balance in public land policy is not just another swing of the political pendulum to the left.

Kerry co-sponsored "America's Red Rock Wilderness Act," perennial legislation supported by more than 100 environmental groups to designate approximately 9 million acres of federal land in Utah as protected wilderness. He is one of national green groups' favorite lawmakers on Capitol Hill, with the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) giving him a lifetime 92-out-of-100 score. Vice President Al Gore had a lifetime score of 62 when he was the Democratic nominee in 2000.

The LCV also has collected more than $50,000 in donations over the past decade from Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, one of the nation's biggest environmental philanthropists. She set a record in 1993 with a $20 million gift to establish a nonpartisan environmental policy research center in Washington in honor of her late husband, Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

Such influences worry Western Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, who fears Kerry's brand of public land stewardship will be to lock it up and throw away the key.

"[Connecticut Democratic Sen.] Joe Lieberman is someone who is not as liberal as John Kerry, but when it comes to land policy, he clearly believes all of Utah that is federal is owned by the federal government, and therefore the East because they have the voting authority," says Bishop. "On issues of land policy, a Kerry administration would be brutal."

Kerry's senior campaign advisor, Tad Devine, says such conservative GOP scare tactics no longer wash with Westerners who recognize that conservation and economic opportunity can co-exist to maintain the West's cherished quality of life.

"We think environmental issues are powerful winning issues throughout the country and there is not a trade-off between jobs and the environment," says Devine. "That is a false choice that Washington politicians like to put in front of people."

The Kerry campaign's pledges of balanced land use may help attract the pivotal "hook and bullet" segment of Bush's base. Outrage within the traditional Republican stronghold of Western anglers and hunters over the White House's plan to dramatically expand oil and gas drilling on the eastern slope of the Rockies - prime hunting spots for trophy grizzly bear and Bighorn sheep - was acknowledged as one of the reasons the Bush administration this week announced it was shelving those initiatives until at least 2007.

If Kerry wins the election, it's likely that his first Western initiatives would be reversals of regulatory decisions by the Bush administration, including the controversial R.S. 2477 agreement with the state of Utah to resolve land ownership disputes arising from old rights-of-way claims by localities for roads crossing federal lands. Kerry was one of four Senate Democrats who wrote Interior Secretary Gale Norton in 2002 to protest the pact she made with Leavitt to create a process to "disclaim" federal ownership of roadways Utah counties claim are rightfully theirs under an 1866 mining law.

"If granted, these so-called 'highways' would cause significant environmental damage and wreak havoc with the federal government's ability to manage the lands," Kerry wrote with Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Barbara Boxer of California.

"It's fine to reconsider Bush-era regulations that you can make a case need to be re-written," says Boise State's Freemuth. "But the style of his approach to addressing those issues is an opportunity to reframe attitudes that Westerners hold toward Democrats."



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