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A New Environment
By Dan Fagin
Cortez, Colo. -- With his black felt cowboy hat, piercing gray eyes and hair
combed straight back, Sheldon Zwicker is the sun-baked face of George W.
Bush's unfinished environmental revolution.
A third-generation rancher, Zwicker sat up with his ailing father on the
night the U.S. Supreme Court halted the Florida recount, giving the
presidency to Bush. "We were both just tickled Bush won," said Zwicker, 57,
who was considering giving up ranching at the time. "My dad said, 'Sheldon,
with Bush in you can hang on a while longer.' An hour later he died. I
really think he wanted to live long enough to know who won the election. It
was that important to him."
Like many Westerners who are avid Bush supporters, Zwicker makes a living on
public lands. When his cows aren't grazing in the San Juan National Forest
they're likely to be in the new Canyons of the Ancients National Monument,
nibbling sparse clumps of sagebrush amid gas wells, fences, and
1,000-year-old pieces of Indian pottery.
The 164,000-acre monument in the high desert of southwestern Colorado was
established in 2000 by President Bill Clinton to give extra protection to
federal land that contains the nation's densest concentration of
archaeological sites, mostly scattered piles of ancient shards and stone
To Zwicker, it was an act of high treason. Though Clinton's proclamation
specified that grazing and drilling could continue, Zwicker and many of his
neighbors regard it as part of a broad environmentalist conspiracy to
eventually kick ranchers, loggers and oilmen off the federal lands they have
leased for generations at cut-rate prices.
"Clinton just stuffed the monument down our throats, as if ranchers are the
enemy of America," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "With Bush in, I
think we have a chance to survive, at least for a few more years ... I think
he's going to make some real changes for the better, if he gets the chance.
He understands there's only so much environmental regulation we can take."
Halfway through his four-year term, the first U.S. president with a master
of business administration degree and a decade's experience in the oil
industry hasn't quite lived up to the expansive expectations of the Sheldon
Zwickers of America -- not yet, anyway.
Many of the Bush administration's most radical proposals to relax or recast
environmental rules have been beaten back by congressional Democrats or tied
up in the courts. Other far-reaching ideas are being kicked around inside
the administration and haven't yet been approved by a White House
preoccupied with terrorism and a possible war with Iraq.
But Bush has already accomplished enough to begin reversing a powerful
30-year trend toward ever-stricter environmental rules, written and
interpreted in Washington and enforced aggressively and evenly across the
country. Instead, on issues ranging from air pollution to wetlands, Bush is
moving to impose regionally tailored policies that give much more deference
to local industry and local communities, leaving Washington-based
environmental groups out in the cold.
"What we've changed is this idea that Northeasterners who don't really know
the West ought to be able to dictate how the West, or the Midwest or
anyplace else can best achieve environmental improvements," said James
Connaughton, the chief environmental adviser in the Bush White House.
Hogwash, say prominent conservationists. "This isn't about empowering local
communities, it's about serving the Republicans' core backers: the
extractive industries and big manufacturers," said Carl Pope, the longtime
executive director of the 700,000-member Sierra Club. "Bush campaigned as a
populist but he's governing as a Whig. These guys think the sole proper
function of government is to serve business."
Now, there are strong indications the Bush revolution is about to pick up
Last week's assumption of Senate control by the Republicans, plus public
anxiety about unstable foreign oil supplies, have combined to give Bush and
GOP congressional leaders a unique opportunity to forge ahead on their
environmental agenda, activists and industry lobbyists agree. They predict
an all-out push on an array of controversial proposals, including drilling
in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and easing long-established rules
that require federal agencies to carefully study potential environmental
impacts before taking any important action.
Just Friday, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers announced a
far-reaching reinterpretation of the Clean Water Act that scales back
federal regulation of pollution in small streams and many other
"non-navigable" waters. The agencies said they were simply complying with a
U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that said the act didn't apply to
certain isolated ponds. But environmentalists charged the Bush
administration with gutting the Clean Water Act by deliberately
misinterpreting a narrow court ruling, and said they expected further
assaults on bedrock federal environmental laws.
Democrats still have enough leverage to block major legislation in the
closely divided Senate and House, but Bush now has a freer hand to make
policy changes through administrative actions in key agencies such as the
Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps
of Engineers. That's because agency officials will no longer face hostile
scrutiny from Democratic Senate committee chairs with the power to convene
oversight hearings and issue subpoenas.
"I am very optimistic," said Bill Kovacs, the vice president for
environmental policy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "I think we're going
to see a lot of changes that are friendly to business, and a lot of that is
going to happen in the agencies. They're going to make a lot of headway."
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are girding for battle on multiple fronts.
"We're going to have to be defending against a lot of bad things, all of
them happening at the same time," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of
Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental group based in Washington.
"This is an administration that is anti-conservation to its core, and I
expect them to drive forward -- hard," he said.
To understand the administration's drive to reshape America's environmental
policies, take a trip to the rocky canyons and small towns of Colorado's
Montezuma County, the extremely reluctant home of one of America's newest
Alfalfa, pinto beans, cattle and logging are still important sources of
local employment, though the growing conditions are harsh even when it
rains, which it rarely has in recent years.
Southwest Colorado is suffering through its longest drought in at least a
century, and wildfires in nearby Mesa Verde National Park have reduced what
little tourism the county attracts.
Nineteenth century homesteaders spurned much of Montezuma County's arid
land, so by default it remained in control of the federal government or was
reserved for the Ute Mountain Indian tribe. Today, the county's population
is just 25,000, and more than 70 percent of its 1.3 million acres are owned
by the federal government, the state or the Utes.
As in many other parts of the Mountain West, the federal government not only
owns most of Montezuma County, it essentially controls the local economy.
The small ranches along McElmo Canyon rely on the dirt-cheap grazing permits
offered by the Bureau of Land Management, since leasing private pasture land
can cost two or three times as much. The sawmills east of Cortez simply shut
down when the Forest Service doesn't give them access to aspen and pine in
the national forest. The alfalfa farmers, meanwhile, can't survive without
irrigation water from McPhee Reservoir, Colorado's second-largest lake and a
1986 creation of the Bureau of Reclamation, which still helps decide how
much water they will get.
An even bigger bulwark of the local economy is drilling. Montezuma County
sits atop the largest reserve of pure carbon dioxide in the United States.
Oil companies extract the gas and pipe it to West Texas oil fields, where
it's injected back into the ground, mixes with the oil and serves as a
solvent that allows much more petroleum to be pumped back to the surface and
Compared with major oil centers such as nearby Farmington, N.M., where there
are thousands of wells, the drilling in Montezuma County isn't much. Yet
about one-third of the county's tax revenue comes from taxes generated by 46
carbon dioxide wells and a smaller number of oil and natural gas wells, many
on leased federal land. The drilling also generates royalties for farmers
and ranchers lucky enough to own land atop the vast gas fields.
With so much to lose, many locals are suspicious to the point of paranoia
about the activities of federal agencies and especially environmental
"Out here, there's a pervasive feeling that the federal government is always
trying to put one over on you," said Dewayne Findley, a sawmill owner and
So when federal officials visited Cortez in 1999 and 2000 to talk about
reclassifying a sprawling chunk of federal land near the Utah border as a
national monument, they were met with open hostility, even when they
promised that ranching and drilling could continue. At public hearings on
the proposal, almost 90 percent of the speakers were opposed.
Clinton pressed ahead anyway, and in June 2000, the Canyons of the Ancients
became one of 21 monuments created or expanded during his final year in
office, including 11 proclaimed after the presidential election. In
Montezuma County, that election was a rout: Bush took 66 percent of the vote
to Al Gore's 27 percent.
But the monument designation stuck. A lawsuit to overturn it failed, and new
Interior Secretary Gale Norton -- a Coloradan with a long record of
supporting grazing, mining, drilling and logging on public lands -- decided
not to try to undo Clinton's action despite pleas from local politicians.
Instead, Interior officials have made it clear that they will rely heavily
on local opinion in deciding what activities will ultimately be allowed on
the monument. So far, the only major new restriction is a ban on off-road
vehicles imposed under Clinton.
"The previous administration didn't listen to local governments and didn't
listen to user groups. In some cases, they seemed to listen only to the
environmental community," said Jim Hughes, a former Republican congressional
staffer and the deputy director for programs and policy at the Bureau of
Land Management, which is part of the Interior Department. "We will never
reach that kind of confrontational stage because we'll be out there working
with the local people."
In the Canyons of the Ancients, there's little doubt what that will mean.
On a chilly winter morning up on Mockingbird Mesa in the heart of the
monument, the hum of electric compressors pushing carbon dioxide through
buried pipelines can be heard above the light wind.
LouAnn Jacobson, an archaeologist at the Bureau of Land Management and the
manager of the Canyons of the Ancients, drives down a rutted dirt road, past
two large pumping station buildings to her destination: a concrete well pad
50 yards from a ruined adobe wall that Jacobson dates from about 1200. Stone
corn-grinding tools and pieces of pottery decorated with black-and-white
geometric forms lie in piles left behind by the Anasazi, ancestors of modern
Pueblo Indians. The artifacts site is one of more than 5,000 identified
inside the 250 square-mile monument. Almost none has been excavated.
Jacobson sees no contradiction between preserving those sites and drilling
for oil and gas, something that's been happening here for decades. Drilling
"isn't consistent with some people's expectations of a national monument,
but BLM is a multiple-use agency. That's what we do. We can preserve the
cultural resources and also allow many of the traditional activities to
continue," she said.
And they are continuing. A few miles southwest of Mockingbird Mesa, four
large trucks carrying seismic equipment took readings last fall to see if
the signs were promising for drilling oil wells in a scrubby plain that
includes portions of the monument. Jacobson approved the project after a
study that environmentalists say was inadequate.
"Anybody who works for BLM right now knows you shouldn't get in the way of
energy projects," said Mark Pearson of the Durango-based San Juan Citizens
Alliance, which tried to block the seismic work in court but later agreed to
a negotiated settlement. "We knew that practically, and legally, we weren't
going to prevail," he said.
He also knew something else: the 45 miles that separates liberal,
fast-growing Durango from conservative, sleepy Cortez is an ideological
Grand Canyon. "It is a different world out there," Pearson said.
The so-called "New West" represented by recreational boomtowns like Durango
and Telluride, with their snowboarders and latte bars and left-leaning
politics, is so despised in Montezuma County that it is a fixture of local
political races. Findley, the sawmill owner, won his county commission seat
last year in part because his opponent's wife helped found a Durango-based
"Around here, you don't want to be perceived as an environmentalist," said
the defeated Chuck McAfee. "It's not like the East."
The Bush administration seems to know that, too, because across the country,
and on a broad range of issues, many of its environmental policies seem
tailored to local sentiment.
Bush is pushing hard to allow oil drilling on federal lands in Alaska,
Wyoming, Utah and other solidly Republican states that are already
economically dependent on drilling and mining.
But in diverse, densely populated Florida, where local opinion is strongly
against drilling, Bush last year helped the re-election bid of his younger
brother Gov. Jeb Bush by announcing the federal government would buy up
existing leases and otherwise block drilling offshore and in the Everglades.
His aggressive efforts to spur logging projects in national forests also fit
snugly into regional political realities, thanks to the wildfires that
plagued overgrown forests across the Southwest in recent years.
Similarly, some of the administration's most significant moves to relax
anti-pollution rules have tended to directly affect only places where his
plans are popular, such as a new EPA rule that will make it easier to do
so-called "mountaintop removal" coal mining in parts of Appalachia.
But in other cases, the White House has discovered over the past two years
that litigation and Democratic opposition in Congress can stymie even
policies that are locally popular.
For example, Bush pleased Midwestern governors by not aggressively pursuing
Clinton-era enforcement cases against aging power plants in the Ohio Valley
whose emissions are a major contributor to Eastern smog. But his plan to
formally exempt those plants from rules requiring certain environmental
upgrades has been at least temporarily stalled by a lawsuit by nine
Northeast states, putting New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, in
the uncomfortable position of opposing the president.
Environmental groups, similarly, have frustrated Bush and his supporters by
successfully tying up many proposed logging and drilling projects throughout
the West, often by citing the provisions of the nation's bedrock
environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. That law,
known as NEPA, in essence requires most federal agencies to do environmental
impact studies before taking significant actions, and makes it relatively
easy to challenge those studies in the courts.
That could change as early as this year, however. The White House is
conducting a broad review it says is aimed at "streamlining" the act.
"I think the biggest and most dangerous arena now is going to be the
attempts to cut public's access to environmental policy and environmental
information," said the Sierra Club's Pope. "The administration knows that if
it can get the public out of the process the power relationships will
change, and then they'll be able to change the policy."
Republicans and their allies say the drive to change NEPA is aimed at doing
exactly the opposite: making sure that agencies listen to the people, and
companies, who are most directly affected by their decisions. "If we can
streamline NEPA, we're going to finally get many of these projects moving,"
said Tom Partin of the Oregon-based American Forest Resource Council.
Just how hard Bush and his Congressional allies will push on environmental
issues -- and how willing Democrats will be to push back -- is still
uncertain in a year in which terrorism and Iraq will overshadow all else in
Washington. Bush also runs the risk of triggering the embarrassing
resignation of his own EPA administrator, former New Jersey Gov. Christie
Whitman, who has clashed internally with the White House on several key
issues but remains publicly supportive.
There are likely to be three early political tests this year: comprehensive
energy and transportation bills, and the budget reconciliation measures
Congress must pass to fund the government. Reviving an old strategy they
used -- mostly unsuccessfully -- when Clinton was president, Republicans may
try to attach specific "riders" to budget bills that would authorize Arctic
drilling, NEPA reforms or changes in the Endangered Species Act, among other
The changes can't come soon enough for Sheldon Zwicker and his neighbors in
Last year, Zwicker sold his 450 cows prematurely after the Bureau of Land
Management, citing the unprecedented drought, did not allow grazing in much
of its low-lying land in Southwest Colorado, including Zwicker's allotment
inside the monument.
"In this case, they really didn't have a choice. When there's no rain,
there's no feed," he said.
If the rains come this year, he hopes to resume ranching as usual --
provided, of course, he gets the access he needs from BLM and the Forest
"Anybody who thinks we have such a great deal with the government ought to
come out here and try ranching for a while," he said. "They can call it a
monument, but to me it's just an arid, harsh desert."
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.