Special Report

The New Landlord

Awaiting the Obamaization of the great American West.

By 11.14.08

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The United States Department of the Interior oversees 507 million acres -- mostly in the West -- of national parks, national monuments, wildlife refuges, Indian reservations, and rangelands. Through its Bureau of Reclamation, it maintains over 600 dams with reservoirs that provide water and hydropower to 30 million Westerners, and irrigates 60% of the vegetables grown in America. Almost 70% of the nation's oil and gas reserves are found on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered lands, also under the purview of the Interior Department.

With all the forecasts in the conservative press concerning the likely excesses of the coming Obama Administration, I've seen almost nothing about what effect his tenure might have on the above "public domain." The regional liberal media (the Denver Post, Idaho Statesman, High Country News, et al.) has produced a few pieces speculating as to who would follow Bush-appointee and former U.S. Senator and Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne as the next Secretary of the Interior. The green left in the West longs for the days of ex-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, him of avuncular land larceny and great survival skills. (Babbitt managed to hold on to the post through the entire eight years of the Clinton Administration despite a scandal involving the Bureau of Indian Affairs.)

The short list includes such green-credentialed liberals as: Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington; Rep. George Miller of California; Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana; John Leshy, a former Interior Department solicitor and Babbitt associate; even environmental activist Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy, Jr. But leaving the name game behind, let's consider the possible mischief that an Obama Interior Secretary pick could promote.

Speaking of the green-sainted Babbitt, we may see a return to the bad old '90s, when he cynically used the 1906 Antiquities Act to close off six million acres of federal holdings mostly in the West to oil and gas development by the creation of 21 new national monuments, again, mostly in the West. Babbitt and the president he served famously neglected to notify Governor Mike Leavitt and the Utah congressional delegation when they created the 1.9 million acres Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. Considering our current energy crisis, a return to this reckless policy would not be good. Babbitt was busy working on the gas-rich Red Desert area of southwestern Wyoming when the Clinton era ended. That's one that got away.

The Endangered Species Act will not only not be reformed (another Bush Administration and Republican Congress sin of omission), but will continue to be used to bludgeon property rights and resource development. For instance, the Sage Grouse will be the new Spotted Owl, enabling greens to judicially disrupt oil and gas ventures on BLM holdings.

Currently, 360,00 acres of BLM land in Utah are slated to be opened to natural gas development. Obama transition coordinator John Podesta said on "Fox News Sunday" recently that this could possibly be squelched by executive order.

Get ready for national park access by mass transit in order to minimize automobile usage. Yosemite, Zion, and Grand Canyon have already instituted shuttle bus services, with Yosemite boasting nine routes. Nothing scares the Chambers of Commerce of "Gateway communities" around Yellowstone more than the idea of having to tell tourists they can't drive on the Park's extensive highway system. But the green dream calls for car-free national parks. Snowmobiles? RVs? Loud motorcycles? A no-brainer.

Dams will be de-commissioned, that is, breached. For example, doing this on four on the lower Snake River (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, Lower Granite) would certainly permit salmon to swim upstream unimpeded, but would also disrupt navigation, irrigation, recreation, water usage, and electric service in the region.

In Indian Country more federal largesse will increase fiscal corruption and only add to the already sorry state of affairs on the reservations: high rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, health problems, unemployment, poverty, and suicide.

Thirty-three thousand wild horses populate BLM lands (with another 30,000 corralled in "holding facilities"). Look for the suspension of federal roundups to manage their numbers, as well as of adopt-a-horse programs, which wild horse and animal rights activists strongly oppose. This will result in overpopulation and degraded rangelands.

Which will be okay with the anti-cow crowd because cattle grazing on leased BLM land will either be reduced or abolished, thereby increasing production costs for ranchers and raising beef prices at the supermarket. If it's not abolished, AUM (Animal Unit per Month: One steer or one cow-calf pair) grazing fees will be increased. Either way, Western livestock producers lose.

The United States Forest Service is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but 193 million acres of national forests will be similarly handled. Little logging, increased access and campground fees, and a permanent codification of the Clinton Administration's last minute 2001 58.5 million acres "Roadless Rule," an executive order immediately opposed by the then-incoming Bush Administration, and one that has been bouncing around in the courts for years.

And that's how the Obama Administration might supervise 25% of the land area of the United States.

Maybe it's time for a revival of the old 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, when Western Republican congressional delegations, governors, and state legislatures worked hard to oppose the such measures as the Endangered Species Act (1973) and the Carter Administration's heavy-handed public lands policies. Alas, those regional GOP political entities are paper tigers today.

The American West's future is bleak.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.