Friday, March 5, 2010

Westerners grouse over more proposed land restrictions

Congressional Western Caucus members are squawking about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s proposal to further restrict public use of federal lands by listing the Greater Sage Grouse as an endangered species.

“The only good place for a sage grouse to be listed is on the menu of a French bistro,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, whose 3rd District would be adversely affected by the listing.

An estimated 500,000 of the birds can be found in 11 Western states. In a March 4 letter to Salazar, 36 caucus members said that listing the grouse as endangered would not only have a “severe impact on all of our states,” it could also “potentially destroy opportunities for the renewable energy development the [Obama] administration has ardently supported” – all for a bird that’s already being successfully protected by wildlife officials at the state level.

But the Obama administration is under great political pressure to list the sage grouse as endangered. Even before the president was inaugurated, environmentalists were calling the bird “a poster child for the threats to wildlife posed by oil and gas drilling, “ and the endangered designation “a litmus test for the Obama administration.”

The economic impact of an endangered listing would fall most heavily on ranchers and energy producers, who feel doubly threatened by another administration proposal to designate millions of acres of federal land in nine states as national monuments, which would put them off-limits for drilling, mining, grazing, lumbering and any other commercial activity.

Salazar told angry Westerners that what they’re calling a federal land grab is just in the “brainstorming” stage, and promised not to repeat the Clinton administration’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah after reassuring the locals that no such plans were in the works. Many ranching and mining operations were permanently locked out of the area as a result.

This time, state lawmakers in Utah are taking no chances. They’ve introduced legislation allowing state officials to seize federal land by eminent domain in hopes of an eventual constitutional showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court.

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