The Bush Administration's investiture in office, when combined with conservative Republican control of both houses of Congress and, increasingly, the federal courts, signaled a move to the right on public lands and natural resource issues. Security concerns in the wake of 9/11 and a decline in the prominence of environmental issues increased the likelihood of change.
Even so, conservationists have been taken aback by the breadth and depth of the administration's attack on some of their cherished goals. They've been even more confounded by the administration's success in avoiding a popular backlash like the Reagan Administration encountered when it started down that same path. All in all, it has been a remarkable three years.
The focus of this paper is federal natural resources, which comprise thirty percent of the nation's dry land and a much higher proportion of valuable things like fossil fuels, timber, water, and wilderness. (1) It does not attempt a comprehensive evaluation of the administration's policies in this area. Instead, it tries to capture (and illustrate with examples) the principal themes reflected in those policies.
II. THE ADMINISTRATION IS A CAPTIVE OF INDUSTRY
Ever since Theodore Roosevelt's administration, national policy toward management of the nation's natural resources has been strongly imbued with a sense of stewardship, of looking beyond short-term political and market imperatives to protecting the interests of future generations. The Bush Administration displays none of this. It is, instead, a throwback to the nineteenth century's Gilded Age. Sifting through its decisions in this area produces only a single common, explanatory thread, a sense that its political appointees ask one basic question--what does industry (2) want? The administration appears, in other words, to have no genuine policy agenda on natural resource issues other than this gut-level preference.
The tilt toward industry reflects the backgrounds of the President and the Vice President, their sources of campaign funds (3) and their appointments throughout the natural resource agencies. To be sure, reflexively regarding industry's preferences as the correct public policy carries with it some decided political advantages, ensuring a hard core of readily-mobilized support for administration initiatives and ample campaign funds for reelection.
For example, the administration has sharply rolled back environmental safeguards for the hardrock (primarily gold) mining industry on federal lands, mostly in the Rocky Mountain West. (4) Along the way, it has taken the position that the United States has no legal authority to say no to a proposed gold mine on its own lands, even when going forward would cause substantial and irreparable harm to other public resources. It followed up that remarkable ruling with another giving metal mining companies not merely the opportunity, but the legal right, to use as much federal land as they need for polluting waste dumps. (5) Both of these overturned Clinton Administration rulings. (6) The strong bias favoring the hardrock mining industry is even more remarkable considering that relatively few jobs could be affected, almost all the industry's production goes to make jewelry rather than products of strategic significance; the industry pays the federal government nothing when it extracts minerals from federal lands, even though it pays states, private property owners and foreign governments when it mines on their lands; and it produces enormous amounts of waste and long-lasting pollution problems which historically have been left for the nation's taxpayers to clean up. (7)
The administration is also moving to roll back regulations seeking to promote good stewardship in the largest single use of the entire federal domain--livestock grazing, found on nearly 300 million acres of federal land. Its proposal, now out for public comment, is aimed at putting private ranchers, rather than the government, much more in charge of how those lands are managed. …