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
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
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. …