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Feds Must Oversee Federal Lands

Environment: 'Enlibra' favors sagebrush rebels, not all Americans, who own the land.

April 11, 1999|TOM TURNER | Tom Turner is director of publications for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) in San Francisco

As the Department of the Interior celebrates its 150th birthday, the Sagebrush Rebellion is back to crash the party. The rebellion was an attempt by some western states--on behalf of big timber, big oil and big beef--to claim management authority over, if not outright ownership of, the federal lands within their borders. The dual motive was to get out from under federal regulations and to cash in on rich resources of timber, oil, gas, rangeland and hardrock minerals.

Well, the rebels are back, with kinder, gentler, quasi-libertarian rhetoric and arguments that sound reasonable until you scrape off the gloss and look at the bones underneath. The new effort goes by the name "enlibra," coined by Utah's Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, which he defines as moving toward balance. He hopes it will revolutionize the management of natural resources throughout the country.

The "enlibra principles"--there are eight--tout local solutions, cooperation, involvement of "stakeholders," compromise, the free market and independent science. Enlibrans hope to avoid litigation and meddlesome federal regulators. "National standards, neighborhood solutions" is the mantra. Proponents insist the effort is not to evade federal jurisdiction but to involve local communities more fully. These are the "stakeholders," and the message is that they should have more influence over resource decisions than people who live far away.

Remember, however, that in most cases we're talking about resources owned by all the citizens of the United States. A child in Harlem is as much an owner of the national forests as a millhand who lives and works in the woods. Local interests have wanted local control over public resources for many decades, and for obvious reasons: Timber companies and other extractive industries know they can far more easily work their will on state and county governments than they can on the federal government.

A background sheet says, "Enlibra does not represent a rejection of the goals and objectives of federal environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act."

But a recent speech by Leavitt sounds a different tone: "I support a national effort to preserve selected species . . . Do animal rights have precedence over plant rights? Mammals over fish? Is it just as objectionable to kill a rare species of ant as to kill a polar bear? Can we take antibiotics as soon as we feel sick, or do the bacteria have a right to due process?" These are silly questions. The goal is to protect ecosystems, not just polar bears and other creatures.

Another enlibran, Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, recently testified to Congress concerning the Clean Water Act. He and other governors are upset by lawsuits to force the Environmental Protection Agency to make the states deal with problems of polluted surface runoff. He repeated a favorite theme: Give us the money and let us fix the problems.

The suits were filed, however, because the states ignored the problems rather than fixing them. So far, at least, local and voluntary solutions haven't worked.

It's instructive to look the organizations that have endorsed the enlibra principles. There were 20 as of late February. More than half were counties in Utah that have fought to block parks and wildernesses and to promote development. Others were statewide county associations from North Dakota, Montana and Nevada, plus a couple of county entities from Hawaii and the American Water Works Assn. No environmental groups. Nearly all old sagebrush rebels.

The enlibrans might try two things to show they're for real in their call for local responsibility and market solutions. First, they should renounce all federal subsidies, like those that make logging on public lands a net loser for the U.S. treasury, year after year. Second, they should allow organizations to buy federal grazing permits even when they propose not to graze livestock but let the land recover. Cooperation deserves to be encouraged.

If all disputes can be solved through compromise and negotiation, splendid. But no one can reasonably expect this to happen all the time, since the economic balance between those who would preserve our natural heritage and those who would exploit it for profit is so lopsided.

To keep any semblance of a balance of power, we will continue to need binding federal laws and regulations, enforceable by citizens in courts of law.

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