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West's Growing Sway on Land Use Only Goes So Far

August 19, 2003|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

With his nomination last week of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, President Bush could add yet another Westerner to an administration heavy with officials who hail from Rocky Mountain states.

The makeup of this most Western of modern White Houses initially heartened many people in the region, who believed at long last that the oft-ignored issues of grazing, mining, water rights, oil and gas and forest management would have a sympathetic hearing in Washington.

Many of the appointees to agencies with jurisdiction over Western lands came from the industries their departments regulate and had held positions as mining lobbyists, timber and cattle company lawyers and energy executives.

In addition to Vice President Dick Cheney, who is from Wyoming, and White House senior advisor to the president Karl Rove, who was born in Colorado and raised in Utah and Arizona, other visible Westerners include Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, from Colorado; assistant secretary for land and minerals management Rebecca Wunder Watson and director of the Minerals Management Service R.M. "Johnnie" Burton, both from Wyoming; Interior Solicitor William G. Myers III, from Idaho; and Bureau of Land Management Director Kathleen Clarke, from Utah. Tom Sansonetti, assistant U.S. attorney general for the environment and natural resources, grew up in Wyoming.

With the appointments has come a broad relaxation of restrictions on mining, logging and energy exploration on federal lands in the West, including many areas previously set aside to protect wildlife. The moves have made enemies among conservation- ists, but the administration says locals approve.

A White House often accused of favoring the rich and powerful says its Western polices give voice to rural communities that under President Clinton had been shut out of decision-making. Indeed, polls show that Bush remains more popular in the Rocky Mountain West than among voters nationwide.

William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, frequently opposes environmentalists in court, and he says he supports Bush but believes he isn't going far enough to undo Clinton's policies.

"The signal from this administration is 'We want more local control,' " he said. "Nobody cares more about the environment than the people who live in the community."

Still, the reaction of Westerners to policies that affect their region has been mixed.

"We're not always in agreement," said Jim Souby, executive director of the Western Governors' Assn. "But it's fair to say that by virtue of the fact that there are more Westerners in the administration, if you are a Westerner, you do get a meeting. But being heard is not the same as being satisfied."

In Wyoming, reaction against the administration's energy policies helped elect a Democratic governor last year. The vote reflected alarm over a huge acceleration of natural gas production on private and federal lands. In Wyoming alone, 14,000 new wells have been drilled, and the Bureau of Land Management has determined that the state can develop as many as 51,000 wells in the near future.

That same election ushered in Democratic governors in Arizona and New Mexico.

Championed by Norton's Interior Department, the drilling bonanza has fouled some grazing land and water sources precious to ranchers. The Wyoming backlash spread to northwestern New Mexico, where there are about 19,000 gas wells operating and ranchers who campaigned for Bush in 1999 now denounce his policies and lock energy companies off their property.

"We are not opposing drilling; we oppose the manner in which they are doing it," said Treciafaye "Tweeti" Blancett, a sixth-generation rancher and lifelong Republican from Aztec, N.M. "I think industry feels with this administration they have carte blanche.... There is no one standing in their way."

Clarke of the BLM last week instructed land managers in the Rockies to remove environmental barriers and expedite drilling.

William deBuys, a New Mexico historian and environmentalist who has worked with ranchers and loggers, argues the administration is more likely to favor local consensus when it doesn't promote conservation.

The Interior Department largely ignored the public's overwhelming opposition to allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park as well as a local accord in favor of grizzly bear reintroduction in Montana's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

The president's Healthy Forests Initiative, which calls for heavy commercial logging of national forests to reduce the threat of wildfires, has been criticized as being too vague and providing too little funding. The largely Republican Western Governors' Assn. has called for far more drastic actions to combat fires.

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