Clinton Plan Challenges `Lords' of US Rural West New Strategy Targets Use of Mineral, Timber, Grazing, and Water Resources

Article excerpt

IN proposing to reform the management of natural resources in the American West, the Clinton administration is taking on a multitude of entrenched special interests and more than a century of history.

It also is assuming that along with the shift to a more urbanized West, national values have changed to favor preservation of the landscape over the extraction of resources for economic gain.

A dozen years ago, opposition to similar attempts at reform by the Carter administration prompted the so-called "sagebrush rebellion" by conservative Westerners and their allies in state and federal office.

Point man in the Clinton effort is Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona who is a trained geologist, a lawyer specializing in water law, and, until a few weeks ago, head of the activist environmental group League of Conservation Voters.

"We're going to take on all the special interests in the country all at the same time," Secretary Babbitt said following President Clinton's Feb. 17 speech to Congress on his economic plan.

These economic interests are governed by what University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson terms "the lords of yesterday." Professor Wilkinson describes them in his recent book, "Crossing the Next Meridian," as "a battery of 19th-century laws, policies, and ideas ... usually coupled with extravagant subsidies ... that arose under wholly different social and economic conditions but that remain in effect due to inertia, powerful lobbying forces, and lack of public awareness."

These "lords" of law and practice, Wilkinson says, cover mining, timber, grazing, hydropower dams along the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, and the storage and diversion of water throughout the rest of the West. Taken together, they represent the essence of a debate that began a century ago between wilderness enthusiast John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to head the new United States Forest Service and who advocated a utilitarian approach to natural resources.

Those laws still on the books today include the 1872 Mining Act, the Reclamation Act of 1902 (which began a series of massive water projects), and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. Starting about 20 years ago, attempts were made at reform by directing the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to manage the hundreds of millions of acres of land they control throughout the West under a concept called "multiple use."

Multiple use, which includes recreation, watershed and wildlife protection, and resource extraction, was supposed to balance and therefore satisfy competing interests. But as recent political battles over such dwindling species as the spotted owl and salmon have shown, it has not worked out that way.

"Multiple use skirts the central reality that in the new urbanizing West there is no longer enough space to accommodate every competing use on every section of public domain," Babbitt told a University of Colorado symposium several years ago. …