Monday, November 10, 2008

Public lands management of particular concern to Cowboy State

A U.S. president can often have a direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of Cowboy State residents. And a president's cabinet has more direct sway in Wyoming, in some respects, than in most other states.

Nearly half of Wyoming -- about 47,000 square miles of it -- is owned and managed by the federal government. Only four states in the nation, all of them in the West, have a higher percentage of their landmasses owned by Uncle Sam.

The way that national parks, forests and other public lands are managed here has implications for individual residents, groups and industries. Among those who can be directly affected by a president's land management policies are ranchers, oil and gas drillers, miners, hunters, fishers, outdoors enthusiasts, loggers, sawmill operators and conservationists.

So, what does an incoming Barack Obama administration signal about the way Wyoming's public lands will be managed?

All interested parties seem to agree there will be a shift -- and perhaps a big one -- from the approach of the Bush administration. But fewer agree on what the ultimate effects of that shift will be.

During his campaign for the presidency, Obama pledged to govern from the "middle," and he emphasized the importance of local influence over decisions made on federal lands. He pledged to do more to protect national parks, forests and the environment, and at the same time to encourage domestic energy development.

Judging from the outcome of the Cowboy State's vote, residents here are skeptical.

Not a repeat of Clinton

In a state where 65 percent of voters filled in the bubble for Republican Sen. John McCain, many Wyomingites are viewing president-elect Barack Obama, a Democrat, with trepidation.

But some prominent Western leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, say those fears might be unfounded.

Former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, of Cody, said Wyoming residents can expect something quite different than they experienced under Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president.

"The last one, with Clinton and (Al) Gore -- they really just didn't understand," Simpson said. "One was from Arkansas and the other was from Tennessee, and they had no public lands of any significance in their states. They didn't know the issues, they didn't know about abandoned mines, didn't know about coal."

This time around, Western Democrats will have more influence with the president, and Obama has shown more of a propensity to be sensitive to Western concerns, Simpson said.

If nothing else, sheer politics will force this administration to be more receptive to the interests of Western states, he said.

Obama visited with Wyoming's Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal, before the state's primary election, and Freudenthal asked Obama tough questions about how he would handle public lands and other Western issues, Simpson said.

Obama eventually won Gov. Freudenthal's support, and the governor recently campaigned for him in Pennsylvania.

"Obama comes from a state that produces a hell of a lot of coal," Simpson said. "He talked about coal research, gasification. There are things going on with oil and gas in Illinois. If they get his ear, he'll be listening. I'm not fearful at all."

This time around, as opposed to during the Clinton years, the West also has several "thoughtful" and forceful Democrats, including Freudenthal, who already have garnered the president-elect's attention.

Montana has Democratic Sens. John Tester and Max Baucus, for example, and "Tester is a guy who is trying to do outreach and collaboration," Simpson said.

Colorado's two U.S. senators are now Democrats, and the state's senior senator, Ken Salazar, is "very able," and "he knows the game," Simpson said. Colorado's new senator, Mark Udall, is "thoughtful about the West," he said. And New Mexico has two Democratic senators now, as well, Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman.

"I'm not concerned that we're going to be left in the cold," Simpson said. "Our pleas will be heeded, and we will have a voice."

For his part, the popular Democratic governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, said fears about Obama putting a crimp on energy development are unfounded. Instead, Obama has a "visionary" approach to energy in line with that of the Western Governors Association, Schweitzer said.

"He understands, like we do in the West, that we will also be producing domestic oil and gas; that's good," Schweitzer said. "He understands that we'd like to develop that oil, gas and coal on our own terms and not have Washington, D.C., determine how much sacrifice we should make. He understands what the western governors, including your visionary governor Dave Freudenthal understands, that the most important energy corridor on the planet is not the Persian Gulf, it's the American West."

Schweitzer, who, like Freudenthal, supported Obama, said the incoming president will collaborate with Western states to create a sound energy policy that will lead to energy independence.

Freudenthal, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said in his official endorsement of Obama: "Senator Obama has demonstrated an understanding of energy and environment issues both in person and in his public statements."

Freudenthal said in his endorsement that he does not necessarily agree with every position taken by Obama, "But I am comfortable that he will be open to reason and discussion." He added: "This openness is incredibly important since the exact nature of the particular Western issues over the next four years remains unknown."

Cabinet to be crucial

All those interviewed for this story agreed Obama's picks for cabinet-level and undersecretary posts will offer a great deal more insight into what the president-elect's public lands policies will be like.

In the U.S. president's cabinet, the secretary of the interior oversees the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management among other agencies. And the secretary of agriculture oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

Kemmerer rancher Truman Julian said the choices for those two posts will be "critical" for Wyoming residents and its ranchers.

"I guess my main concern is about whoever he appoints for secretary of interior or agriculture," Julian said. "It's important that he have an understanding of our lifestyle, cultural history, our heritage. I would hope it'd be somebody from the West, especially for secretary of the interior. Somebody who represents the West and Western issues, our lifestyle. Somebody who understands we can govern ourselves out here."

Ranchers tend to survive, Julian said, no matter who the president is, provided the rules and regulations remain "reasonable."

"The problem I have is with the Eastern establishment telling us how to live out here in the West," Julian said. "We don't need any more government, and that's what I am afraid we're going to get."

Julian said he'd feel a lot better if somebody such as Freudenthal were appointed secretary of the interior because Freudenthal understands how rules made in Washington, D.C., can affect the West and, he added, "He's pretty moderate."

Bill Taliaferro, a rancher in Sweetwater County, said he agreed the cabinet-level officials and their undersecretaries are critical appointments, but he said he's fairly sure the Obama administration will not get it right when it comes to managing public lands.

Too much emphasis on environmental regulations and rule-making, dating back to the Nixon administration, has put the United States on a dangerous path, Taliaferro said, and he doesn't expect anything different from Obama. Agricultural producers will likely continue to be put out of business during an Obama administration, Taliaferro said.

"I think we're going to head into a food crisis and I don't think Obama and city folks and the Chicagoans have a clue," he said. "I don't think McCain had a clue either."

Conservationists, logging groups optimistic

During his campaign, Obama released a position paper in which he pledged to "aggressively" pursue fire prevention on public lands and to address a long-standing funding issue that annually forces the U.S. Forest Service to dip into its general operating money to pay for ever-increasing wildfire management costs.

"Barack Obama will work with governors, Congress and local officials on a bipartisan basis to develop and enact reliable, dedicated funding sources to fight the most catastrophic fires so that public lands may continue to be managed for public access, fish, wildlife, recreation, forestry and other multiple uses," his Web site states.

Tom Troxel is director of the Rocky Mountain Division of the Intermountain Forest Association, an organization that advocates for the logging industry.

For Troxel, Obama's recognition that fire funding is broken is of critical importance. A broad coalition of "strange bedfellows," including loggers and conservationists, has long pushed for the agency's fire budget to be separated from its general operating budget.

Under the current system, national forests throughout the U.S. have been forced, annually, forgo or delay forest management projects and during the summer, shift funds into the firefighting kitty.

Obama has pledged to change that.

"That's not something that the administration can do by itself," Troxel said. "It would have to work with Congress to do that. I think it would be tremendously helpful if they could take the lead in advocating for that kind of a funding strategy."

Leaving the Forest Service's operating budget intact would help "virtually every national forest program and virtually every user group or advocacy group," he said.

It will also be essential that Obama follow through on his pledge to emphasize local input on forest management decisions, Troxel said.

"To me it's so important to recognize the input of states, counties and local communities in how the national forests are managed, and not have all the management strategies revolve around D.C.," he said.

Conservation groups seem to universally anticipate that an Obama administration will be more conservation-minded than the Bush administration was.

Bruce Pendery is the program director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a conservation organization. He said, "it seems likely the overwhelming emphasis on drilling will ease somewhat."

While Obama has made it clear that domestic energy production should be increased, "it seems likely" Pendery said, that his policies will include a greater degree of environmental protection than those of the Bush administration.

"During the last eight years we have seen a policy of drill at any cost," Pendery said. "Hopefully during the next four years we will see a policy of greater balance. Wyoming air, water, wildlife and open spaces need this."

However, Pendery said he doubts that public land management "has been on (Obama's) radar screen" of late, as he's been gearing up to deal with his higher-priority issues, such as the besieged economy and the prosecution of two wars.

Jared White, with the Wilderness Society, said if the Obama administration lives up to its pledge to govern from the center, it'll only help different "user" groups on public lands come together to form "lasting solutions."

"Regardless of the presidential administration, these coalitions will still be the way forward," White said. "The middle ground achieved by these coalitions -- they really are going to lead to lasting solutions, and I think the Obama administration will realize that, and we certainly realize that."

White said he also expects decisions about public lands to once again be based on science rather than politics.

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, said:

"The Bush administration will be doing more for wildlife by simply going away than anything else they could do. We expect the Obama administration will feature a lot more balance between industrial development and conservation. And do more than simply give lip service to wildlife protections and public lands conservation."

Contact environment reporter Chris Merrill at or (307) 267-6722

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