Obama will protect public lands, pursue green energy
Environmentalists will have more influence, but Western Democrats hope for a collaborative approach
Western Democrats and environmentalists will have more influence on federal land decisions in Idaho and the West under President Barack Obama.
Decision-makers will defer more to scientists on resource issues and spending priorities will shift toward protecting land, fish and wildlife, Democrats said Tuesday night.
But there is a tension between environmentalists who want him to reverse decisions made by the Bush administration and Western Democrats who hope Obama's pledge to govern in a "post-partisan" manner means he will bring a collaborative approach to public land issues.
"He's not going to make some of the mistakes of the past," said Cecil Andrus, former Idaho governor and Jimmy Carter's interior secretary. "He knows his history."
Issues like climate change and alternative energy - along with the economy - are going to get more attention in the new administration than public lands grazing, logging and motorized recreation. And the skyrocketing federal deficit could force a reorganization of land, water and wildlife agencies now spread out under three different Cabinet departments.
More than 63 percent of Idaho's land is owned by the federal government and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. How these lands are managed is critical to the economies and quality of life in Idaho and all western states.
Several federal jobs in Idaho, including U.S. attorney, Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency state director and BLM state director are political jobs that can shift with the new administration. But the most important job to the West is interior secretary, now held by former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who controls more than 507 million acres of national parks, rangeland and wildlife refuges, along with 600 dams. The head of Interior is responsible for 68 percent of the nation's oil and gas reserves and millions of acres of federal mining lands.
Obama will choose Kempthorne's successor and that choice will be the first sign of how he will balance the political pressures from national environmentalists and Western Democrats.
Environmental groups want Obama to restore Clinton's rule that banned logging and road-building in most of 58 million acres of national forest; phase snowmobiles out of Yellowstone National Park; and reduce the number of wolves that can be killed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
But five of eight interior West states now sport Democratic governors - and they have some different values from the environmentalists back East.
Daniel Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana and an influential Democrat, said Obama should listen to Democratic elected officials who gained their offices by working with both environmentalists and industry and governing from the middle. Historically, Democrats wrote off the West and Republicans took it for granted. But this time wins in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico were crucial to Obama's victory.
"I think it would be foolish for a new Democratic administration to treat the West in the same way it has been treated in the past," Kemmis said.
Kemmis and Chris Wood, chief operating officer of Trout Unlimited, hope the Obama administration works with Western states, loggers, sportsmen and other land users to craft compromises like Idaho's own compromise on its 9 million acres of roadless national forest lands.
"The lesson of the last eight years is that when you listen to local people, you can still gain significant conservation benefits," Wood said.
Craig Gehrke, Idaho representative of the Wilderness Society, knows about working with local groups. He helped craft a bill to protect 500,000 acres of wilderness and ranching in Owyhee County by working with ranchers, motorized recreation groups and local officials. But he said he and other environmentalists are drawing a line in the sand with the roadless rule.
"We think there shouldn't be any more roads built in national forests," Gehrke said.
With budgets getting tighter, some Democrats are suggesting the Forest Service, the BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and other land and water agencies be pulled under one Cabinet official with one overall mission.
"It's time for a federal policy that moves beyond the current fragmented approach," said John Kitzhaber, former Oregon governor and one of a dozen Democrats whose names have emerged for Interior. "Now, more than ever, we need strong and unified leadership around a common objective - healthy, functioning ecosystems."
"Alternative energy and climate change are totally going to be the dominant issues," said Don Barry, a former assistant interior secretary in the Clinton Administration. "You'll see some real leadership and creative thinking in these areas."
Obama's initiative on alternative energy offers Idaho, especially rural Idaho, great opportunity for economic development, said Rich Rayhill, a wind energy entrepreneur from Boise. Climate change legislation is going to make coal power, now imported into the state, more expensive.
"Clean tech and green tech are going to be the new dot-com," Rayhill said.
When Jimmy Carter took office in 1976, environmentalists pushed his administration to try eliminating 19 water projects that angered Western Democratic governors and senators. It also helped spawn what was called the "Sagebrush Rebellion" by ranchers, loggers and miners who were angry about decisions made in Washington. Clinton's efforts to reform grazing and mining rules without consultation with Congress triggered Republican's successful "War on the West" rhetoric and helped them take over Congress in 1994.
The Bush administration's aggressive oil and gas leasing program, which ignored concerns by ranchers, sportsmen and Western political leaders, helped Democrats rebuild state Democratic parties across the region. Barry said the people Obama will tap for the new administration, some involved in the past mistakes, have learned their lessons.
"They are not going to forget," Barry said. "They've got long memories."
The people placed not only at the secretary level but at jobs like Forest Service chief and BLM director will signal how well Western Democrats are heard by Obama, said John Freemuth, a Boise State University political scientist who specializes on public land issues. Ultimately, Westerners themselves will decide.
"We'll see that the Obama administration has gone in a different direction if we don't see another Sagebrush Rebellion," Freemuth said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484