Obama Should Look to Risch and Crapo's
by Chris Wood
Two issues, the recovery of Pacific salmon and steelhead and the management of 58.5 million acres of national forest roadless areas, may predict the Obama administration's approach to land and water conservation in the western United States. Ironically, the Democratic administration would do well to look to Idaho - the reddest of the red states - for counsel.
To be certain, Idaho has a rich conservation heritage. Sen. Frank Church's legacy is forever memorialized by the wilderness that bears his name. As secretary of the interior, Cecil Andrus oversaw the protection of more than 100 million acres of public land in Alaska. More recently, natural resource politics in Idaho were dominated by Sen. Larry Craig, known more for his defense of extractive industries than support for conservation.
Idaho's present senators, Republicans Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, are demonstrating a new kind of conservation leadership, one that could serve as a road map for the Obama administration. On May 29, Crapo said that in order to recover imperiled stocks of Snake River salmon and steelhead, the federal government should consider all options, including breaching the four lower Snake River dams. This represents the first time a Northwest senator has publicly stated that removing the four lower Snake River dams should be considered.
Crapo's comments follow newly elected Sen. Jim Risch's call for establishing a dialogue among advocates for salmon recovery who believe dam removal is essential for recovering imperiled salmon and steelhead, and those who oppose the measure. Risch believes that bringing together the players most affected by the decline and potential recovery of salmon and steelhead is vital to the long-term recovery of the fish and the well-being of the affected communities.
Risch has good reason to believe in this approach. He pulled together timber companies, counties, conservation interests and others to protect Idaho's 9 million acres of national forest roadless areas. Due to conflicting judicial opinions over the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (2001 Rule), Idaho now enjoys the strongest regulatory protection for roadless areas in the United States.
As evidenced by the successful Owyhee Initiative and the Idaho roadless rule, Crapo and Risch both understand that conservation is most durable when it involves the widest array of interests. When the Bush administration allowed states to propose amendments to the 2001 rule, Idaho and Colorado stepped forward. Unlike Colorado's proposal, the Idaho Rule represents an increase in net protection for roadless areas. Given the uncertainty surrounding the 2001 Rule, the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, should consider a policy to allow states to support the base level of protection of the 2001 Rule, or allow them to improve on it as Idaho has done.
Snake River salmon recovery and community well-being are inextricably linked. Directly engaging the communities of place and interest most affected by salmon decline compels conservation interests to become community advocates. Similarly, it helps potentially affected communities recognize the potential benefits of restoration.
Idaho's salmon and steelhead migrate nearly 900 miles from the ocean to return to their natal streams to spawn. Most often they return to roadless areas in the national forests of Idaho - the best habitat that remains. Salmon and roadless areas define Idaho. They are a tangible reminder of the heritage and perseverance of the people that endured extraordinary hardships to settle the state.
Idaho's senators demonstrate a form of collaborative stewardship that moves away from the tired battles between environmentalists and development interests. Collaborative stewardship is less about pitting competing interests against each another in the name of "good politics," than it is intoning President Theodore Roosevelt's belief in bringing people together to find commonsense solutions to common problems for the common good. Let's hope the Obama administration follows Risch and Crapo's lead.
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