Thirty years ago, those sentiments were coalescing throughout the West in the movement that was to become the Sagebrush Rebellion. In 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) was enacted, placing millions of acres in the West that had been held by the government under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM was given authority to retain and manage the lands for the benefit of the general public. What had been a largely undefined and unregulated lands were now directly under the purview of the federal government.
Largely in reaction to what was seen as a major land grab by the feds, in 1979 Nevada’s legislature and the governor signed legislation to require the U.S. government to turn 49 million acres of federal land holdings in Nevada over to the state, the movement soon engulfed the interior west. The law has never been—and can never be—enforced. But it gave voice to and momentum behind the feeling in much of the mountain west that too much land has been controlled for too long by the federal government.
Politically, the movement was spurred on when then Governor Reagan, a presidential candidate, declared himself a Sagebrush Rebel. Every state in the region followed up with similar legislation and Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona actually passed them. Reagan swept into power, carrying every state in the region by wide margins, and with him swept in many of the former Rebels, including his new Interior Secretary James Watt. While the public lands brought under the BLM’s control by the FLPMA remained regulated by the BLM, under the Reagan administration the "public good" the BLM was charged with protecting was weighted heavily in favor of industry.
The sentiment and the movement, however, didn’t entirely die as a result of its success. It became the more sophisticated, more establishment, and definitely more corporate "wise use" movement of the 1980s. Building on, and exploiting, the popular sentiment of libertarian-minded westerners against what was seen as the federal government’s heavy regulatory hand, extractive industry front-groups organized along with other elements of the conservative movement—including the religious right—to establish a permanent, well-funded, and powerful "grassroots" effort to curtail environmental protection on public lands. A brief respite during the Clinton administration--expansion of wilderness areas, endangered species listings, creation of roadless areas, and stricter environmental regulations on industry—created an even greater backlash, and under the Bush/Cheney regime, industry reigns supreme.
But a funny thing happened to Bush and Cheney in their quest to mine, drill, clearcut, and exploit every last public acre. In some areas, even in the West, we’ve come full circle to distrusting the federal government and its policies again. Now that those public lands that were expanded back in the Clinton years have been public for a while, people have come to feel rather proprietary toward them, and to resent the efforts of the Bush administration to open them up to oil and gas drilling.
This is well demonstrated in an article from The Washington Post from from January of this year, describing the public fight the National Rifle Association, representing hunters and anglers, was picking with the administration.
The new emphasis on the issue of access to public lands, which Schmeits said is at the "discussion" level among the NRA's directors, would represent a strategic shift for the NRA, whose leadership in Washington has long maintained that its 4 million members were not complaining or even asking questions about access to public lands.
But, during the past six years, an increasing number of the country's 46 million hunters and anglers, including Republican-leaning shooting organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club, have been grumbling about the Bush's administration fast-tracking of oil and gas drilling leases on public lands.
Those oil and gas drilling leases are causing a larger problem in the interior West--air pollution clogging up our Big Skies, to go with the scarring of the land and the ground water pollution it's causing. Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana have all had to take action in recent years to try to curb emissions from industry, and New Mexico has just formed a task force to study air quality in the Four Corners area.
But beyond the obvious problems of air and water quality, of public lands being opened up to industry and closed off to recreation--issues which are particularly salient to many of the region's new immigrants from other parts of the country—there’s a larger problem. There’s a new reality shaping the public lands debate in the West, one that will eventually even out the playing field: it’s the economy, stupid.
The Sierra Club’s public lands report for 2007, The New Economy of the West: From Clearcutting to Camping [pdf] tells the story:
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, between 1990 and 2003 income in counties relying on wood products, mining, and oil and gas development grew by just two percent. By contrast, wages in the West as a whole grew by 12 percent during that same time. The fastest growth occurred where the predominant occupation is business or consumer services. Economists have found that the West’s natural environment attracts workers, firms and investments, thereby increasing prosperity.
Data gathered over the past 30 years shows that the closer a county is to federally protected lands, the faster that county’s economy has grown. The reason for this shift is that people are increasingly moving to rural western towns for their unique landscapes and quality of life. Many of these new arrivals are retirees with investment income. They buy or build new homes, eat out in restaurants, and spend time hiking, camping and fishing on the public lands in their new communities....
- Outdoor recreation generates $61 billion annually for the Rocky Mountain West.
- Hunting and fishing contributes over $3 billion to the economy of the Rocky Mountain West.
- 85 percent of total hunters in the West use public lands for hunting and fishing.
In those communities experiencing the healthiest economic growth, not coincidentally those communities closest to public lands, the report finds increased employment, higher earnings and income, lower poverty, and improvements in local educational attainment and health. Property values also increase the closer they are to protected public lands, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce study included in the report.
The new reality is that protected and well managed public lands are worth more to western communities than the oil, gas, or timber than you can pull out of them. What’s more, greater numbers of Westerners earn their living off of those well-managed and protected lands, along with enjoying them during their leisure time.
That’s changing politics, too. Consider the results of this May 2007 poll (pdf) conducted by Talmey-Drake for Colorado Environmental Coalition, The Wilderness Society and Wilderness Workshop. When asked if an additional 1 million acres of BLM held lands should receive wilderness designation, mining, oil and gas development, road building, and off-road vehicle and mountain bike use, 64% of respondents supported the proposal, and of those, 70% strongly supported it. A full 71% of respondents agreed with this statement:
Supporters of more wilderness protection say Colorado’s population has grown 20 percent in the past eight years and new development uses up about 250 acres every day. They also point out that tourism, recreation and hunting are some of the largest contributors to Colorado’s economy, and that this rapid growth, as well as increased drilling of oil and gas on our public lands, is putting intense pressure on Colorado’s national parks, wilderness areas and forests. Therefore more of the state’s remaining wild places should be protected for recreation, wildlife, and our children before it’s too late. Further, they say that we can never drill our way to energy independence and we ought to implement sustainable energy alternatives before we damage these last best wild places.
Those sentiments have been felt at the ballot box in Colorado, where in 2006 the Democrats gained the governor’s seat and substantial gains in the legislature, as well as a Congressional seat. These gains can’t be laid solely on environmental issues, but the backlash against the gross exploitation of these lands by the Bush/Cheney regime is most definitely created a backlash there.
Expect that backlash to spread through all of the states that rely heavily on public lands for both their economies and their recreation. This is a pendulum that seems to be swinging back to balance, and with it will come increased support for Democrats. Provided Western Democrats recognize how important the issue is to voters.
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