Re-examining the Laws of the West
Political battles between miners, grazers, and environmentalists.
Public lands and the way the government manages them have long been a sensitive political topic in the West. For decades, resource industries have operated under frontier-era laws that encouraged land development but relied on huge taxpayer subsidies. The laws usually had minimal environmental standards to boot.
The Clinton administration became the latest Washington bureaucracy to try to implement reforms when it tried to raise fees for mining and ranching on government-owned land as part of its 1993 budget. This triggered a huge outcry in the rural West, and ensuing tensions between conservationists and business interests mirrored the heated debate over logging in the Pacific Northwest.
Western senators from both political parties succeeded in filibustering the changes and, eventually, getting them removed from the budget. The showdown led Republicans to charge that the White House -- and especially Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt -- was waging a "War on the West" that would destroy small communities' livelihoods.
In many ways, the debate resembles the "sagebrush rebellion" of the 1970s, in which western water and resource interests rebelled against the Carter administration. But the budget-cutting climate in Washington and a greater sensitivity to the environment reflected in numerous public opinion polls makes the current fight one between the "old west" and the "new west."
The 1872 Mining Law is one of the centerpieces of the debate. Passed during the administration of Ulysses Grant, it allows speculators to purchase public lands for as little as $2.50 an acre if evidence of mineral deposits exists. Critics say that now allows foreign mining firms to lay claim to thousands of acres of government land containing millions of dollars of gold, silver, and other metals and only return a tiny fraction of the value to the U.S. Treasury. Mining companies and their supporters in Congress argue that efforts to raise fees will dramatically increase the cost of exploration and force them to take their operations abroad. The Clinton administration wants to overhaul the law, raise fees and impose greater environmental standards. Western Republicans favor keeping the law as it is.
A similar debate surrounds ongoing efforts to raise the fees ranchers pay to graze livestock on some of the 270 million acres of land the goverment owns in the West. One of Babbitt's first moves was to enact grazing reforms -- a politically risky move that backfired because it was perceived to single out small family ranchers. Public sentiment favored the ranchers even in suburbs of western cities, far from the nearest grazing allotment. Babbitt subsequently retreated. Senator Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has proposed a package of reforms backed by ranchers but condemned by environmentalists. It is still pending in the Senate as part of an omnibus parks and public lands bill Clinton has vowed to veto.
Clinton advisors have urged him to press on with the reforms, hoping their environmental appeal will lure swing voters, not to mention confirmed Democrats, in western cities and suburbs. Republicans seem content to play their pitch to the rural West, where passions run higher but there are fewer votes. While in the Senate, Bob Dole sponsored a property rights bill aimed at protecting private landowners from overzealous environmental regulations. His campaign is also playing up common-sense themes, hoping to tap into perceptions that Washington doesn't understand the region's unique concerns.
Adriel Bettelheim has been Washington correspondent for The Denver Post since 1993. He also spent four years at the paper as a business reporter covering, among other topics, regulation and resource industries. He previously worked at the Syracuse Herald-Journal and smaller papers in upstate New York.