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Obama, Salazar and the Future of America's Public Lands

Interior Decorating

by BRIAN HOREJSI

What western lands management has suffered from over the last 20 plus years has been, in my view, a disastrous move toward consensus decision making. There is no known way – and this explains an awful lot of why western land management has moved in this direction – to more effectively purge the "best available science" and broad public access to legal and administrative process out of the land management scenario than to move to local control and consensus. This has not happened by default; its a right wing republican driven agenda that envisions essentially privatized decision making and control of public lands and processes. It has gained immense strength since Reagan, did not lose any momentum under Clinton, and rose to new heights under Bush.

Recently Dan Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula where he oversaw explosive population growth that ate up virtually every inch of land possible, has been mentioned by consensus beneficiaries, as possible Undersecretary of Agriculture (Forest Service). In my view such an appointment would be a tragic mistake for I see little evidence he understands, or appreciates, or supports the broad use of ecological science to under pin decisions about public lands and biological diversity conservation. He would continue to move away from the brilliant visions and legislation that were born in America in the mid part of the last century (NEPA, APA, NFMA, ESA, Wild Act) and would strengthen the privatization agenda of special interest users like the timber industry, grazing industry, and oil and gas industry.

There is a role for public lands in the battle to reverse global climate disruption, but Kemmis and collaboration / consensus decision making will not fulfill that role. The sad fact of the matter is that public lands management has continued not just to drift, but to rush, toward the lowest common denominator level of mgmt, which is what consensus is well known for. I can, for example, tell you we would not have President Elect Obama if it had been a consensus based selection process.

The only effective role public lands can play in the global climate agenda is to dramatically increase and recover the ecological integrity of the landscape, that is remove and reduce the industrialization (including logging, even when couched in the name of forest health) and motorization that has fragmented and degraded ecosystems. From a wildlife perspective, that is the only – yes, the only – means by which more robust wildlife and fish populations can be achieved, and more robust they will have to be to have even a chance of surviving the changes already in the pipeline. This requires breaking the "locals know best" mold that has framed debate about and constrained conservation management on public lands for the past 30 years. Kemmis, and I’m afraid, recent appointment in waiting as Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, wont do that.

The continued nonsense about "experimentation" is precisely part of the privatization process that has degraded the regulatory process and the ecological integrity of public lands for the past 30 years. In order to circumvent the best available science and the interests of ALL Americans (yes, blue states and red states, east and west, north and south, with and without public lands, those that live one mile from pubic lands, and those that live 200 miles away, those that hunt and those that do not, etc., etc) there has been a steady stream of "initiatives" to displace science and regulatory and democratic public process. It has been framed as "innovation", "experimentation", "collaboration", "partnerships", "consensus", and probably a half dozen other "broken wing" strategies, but all have led away from the tried and true measures of land and wildlife conservation. And those measures are roadless lands, low road densities, very limited industrialization, and very limited motorization. Salazar and Kemmis cant and wont deal with these issues in the necessary and constructive manner.

This is not a time for more of the same, even dressed in the language of experimentation. And I’d speculate near everyone thought Obama was going to deliver change. This is a time for sound science and, although it appears late for this, preferably a science trained manager / leader at Interior; it is time for a strong public regulatory process, full and open access to that process by all Americans, and de-emphasizing local control of the land that happens, still, to be owned by all Americans. Kemmis and Salazar cant handle that agenda. But public lands, and all that they encompass, from Threatened and Endangered species and populations, to carbon sequestering forests, to the democratically inclusive power of full and equal public involvement (via public hearings and open and accessible administrative procedures), desperately need to be reclaimed and reestablished. Such a transition is not, and I want to emphasize not, going to be smooth and there are going to be special interests and people who are going to lose privileges they have never earned and cannot be sustained.

But now is the time for a resurgence of democracy, the American people, and science if they are to form the foundation of public lands conservation and management. It is true that change can happen, but so far, I see only a dimming of the horizons.

Dr. BRIAN HOREJSI is a widlife scientist. He can be reached at: b2horejsi@shaw.ca.