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Governors Take Aim at West's Land Wars

by Jeff Mapes, The Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, June 5, 2000

A plan John Kitzhaber helped forge would maintain tough environmental laws
while giving locals more flexibility

If you want to know how a new president will manage the West's public lands, you might have found the answer in Boise last week.

At a conference organized by former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, two Northwest governors -- Oregon Democrat John Kitzhaber and Montana Republican Marc Racicot -- laid out a prescription for easing the long Western land wars. It may prove attractive to both Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Kitzhaber and Racicot, who have forged a strong friendship across party lines, sketched out a policy that would maintain tough national environmental laws -- but give locals more flexibility in figuring out how to accomplish restoration of Western lands and waters. Both say their approach will have to be lubricated with plenty of federal money.

Racicot rejected the idea that leaders of his party can continue to resist high environmental standards or even just blindly follow the will of the timber, mining and ranching industries that have been the backbone of Republican support in the West.

"We recognize these are national assets," Racicot said of the West's remaining public wilderness. "We recognize we are the stewards of these national assets."

At the same time, Kitzhaber said, "We must recognize the futility of relying solely on the traditional tools of regulation and litigation to advance the cause of environmental health." He said his greatest environmental successes in Oregon include local residents, such as when he helped establish dozens of watershed councils to involve landowners in restoring degraded coastal streams.

Already, there are reverberations on the presidential campaign trail. As Racicot and Kitzhaber were speaking in Boise on Thursday, Bush was delivering his own environmental declaration on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

"We have a national consensus about the importance of conservation," said the Texas governor and certain Republican nominee. "But problems arise when leaders reject partnership and rely solely on the power of Washington."

Bush promised to increase spending from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for state and local environmental projects while also expanding tax incentives for private conservation efforts.

George Frampton, chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality and a key adviser to Vice President Gore, attended the Andrus conference and also praised the idea of cooperating closely with local interests.

Of course, the question is whether such agreement is rhetorical only.

A day before the meeting in Boise, Gore appeared before the League of Conservation Voters and vowed to pursue even tougher protections for 43 million acres of roadless lands in the West where the Clinton administration has proposed limiting activities. It only intensified Racicot's fear that Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, would follow the Clinton administration and bypass the states in deciding the fate of those public lands.

Conversely, Bush continues to make many environmentalists nervous. He has advocated drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, opposed breaching of Snake River dams for salmon protection and denounced the Clinton administration's moves to protect Western landmarks.

The spirit of James Watt, the controversial interior secretary of the Reagan administration who championed environmental rollbacks, "is alive and well in the Republican leadership in Congress, and Bush has said he would support a lot of what they want," said Daniel J. Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club.

That kind of conflict has characterized the Western land wars for more than two decades. Each interest -- whether environmental, industrial or agricultural -- has tallied its victories in legislative or legal wins, not in achieving consensus on the 350 million acres of federal lands in the 11 contiguous Western states.

But John Freemuth, a political scientist at Boise State University who specializes in environmental issues, said he sees some signs of change. Republicans have learned that voters as a whole strongly support protecting public lands. The administration's series of national monument declarations (the newest proposed monuments include Soda Mountain in Southern Oregon and the Hanford Reach in Washington) have been popular in polls even if local political leaders feel left out by the process.

Bush's Lake Tahoe talk "was not a fed-bashing speech," Freemuth said. "It was a speech that seemed to echo Racicot and Kitzhaber."

Racicot, who has consulted frequently with Bush and has been mentioned as a possible interior secretary if Bush wins the presidency, praised the Texas governor as a new generation of leader who doesn't want to return to the days of Watt-type confrontation.

"I think we're really on the cusp of a new age and a new way of thinking about environmental, economic and social decisions," Racicot said. People are "terribly, terribly mistaken" if they think Bush will seek rollbacks in environmental protection, he said.

Kitzhaber said he still thinks Gore has a stronger record of accomplishment on environmental issues than Bush, but the Oregon governor said he'd have more faith in a Bush interior department headed by Racicot.

Kitzhaber said the key is to set a goal of a healthy ecosystem, then figure out what economic and social activities fit in with that. Making it work, Kitzhaber and Racicot said, will involve extra federal money to help people hit by new environmental restrictions and to better manage the lands.

For example, Racicot said, "If it is worth it to the country to remove dams, then the country is going to pay those who are impacted."

Andrus, who heads a center in his name at Boise State, said the center will produce a white paper from the conference that will go to the presidential candidates. Andrus, a skilled political infighter from his service as governor and as interior secretary in the Carter administration, said he thinks both Bush and Gore will pay attention.

"We can make it rather unpleasant for them if they don't follow it," he said. "We can turn up the heat on them."

Jeff Mapes, The Oregonian staff
Governors Take Aim at West's Land Wars
The Oregonian, June 5, 2000

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