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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Who Owns the West?

Air Date: Week of

Former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus and NY Times reporter Tim Egan join Steve for a roundtable discussion of the vastly changing West. It's not just for cowboys anymore.


CURWOOD: The American West is part of our lore as a place of opportunity and new beginnings. But in today's west, instead of range wars between competing groups of ranchers, the fight is now against sprawl and for the idea that there still can be an open west. For one thing, much of the remaining undeveloped space in the west is managed by the Federal Government, and as land becomes more scarce and control more restrictive, conflicts occur more often. Conflicts which often boil down to the fundamental question of who owns the land, who owns the West?

Cecil Andrus, former governor of Idaho and author of Cecil Andrus: Politics Western Style; and Tim Egan, reporters for the New York Times and author of Lasso the Wind, join us now to help answer that question. Gentlemen, welcome.

EGAN: Steve, how are you? It's great to be with you.

ANDRUS: Hello, Steve, how are you? Cecil Andrus in Idaho.

CURWOOD: In your books both of you present particular myths about the west. What are those myths, and why at this point in history do you feel intent on debunking them?

ANDRUS: Well, Steve, let me respond first of all by correcting what you just said. The Federal Government happens to be land managers. Too many people think it's Federal land like they own it. The people of the United States own the land out here, and we get the BLM, the Forest Service, the Parks Service, and others to manage that land for us. So, many times we have a problem with bureaucrats down in some of the Federal agencies that will say this is my land, or our land, and they're going to dictate as to how it is used and who will use it. And that is probably the chief complaint that we have in modern times with the management of those lands. There are vast tracts of lands, but let me tell you, it, as Tim will agree, I'm sure, it's being consumed at a horrendous rate.

EGAN: And this amazing situation where the west is the most urban area in the United States, that is, this highest percentage of people who live in cities. The Census Bureau rates 86% of all Westerners live in cities. But we have right outside of our doorsteps greater than five hundred million acres of be it desert, forest, open prairie, mountain country, etc. And that's the promise and also the peril of the west, is that we're largely city dwellers, still, but we have this public land outside our doorstep.

CURWOOD: Governor, let me ask you this. Do you think that the recreation, all those folks in the city who hop in their pickup trucks and head for the hills, and the resource extraction uses of public land, are these mutually exclusive?

ANDRUS: Not in every instance but yes, there are some where, you know, if you clear-cut a hillside and you destroy the water quality of the streams below that, then you're not going to have any trout fishing. And there's, the sins of the past are still evident out there, but best management practices have changed. We no longer permit clear-cutting in the state of Idaho. The mining is now considered to be a temporary use of the land, and there has to be a reclamation. The Quarterlaine Mining Company, which has culled core precious metals, has just won two national awards for having a surface mine that they extracted all the minerals and then they put it to bed, a term used out here, and three or four years later it's hard to tell that there was ever a mine there. Other areas that were mined 100 years ago still look like they were mined.

CURWOOD: Now, the government has been trying to strike some compromises in this area. I'm thinking of the Headwaters land deal, Tim. Is that compatible, incompatible?

EGAN: No, that's a good point. I mean, you brought up a very good point because that's what I see more and more happening in these land battles in the west, is people are just, if they want to preserve an area, if they want to stop some entity from logging, they are just going outright and purchasing it. And this, the government is doing more and more, but they picked it up, or they're following the tracks of people, groups like The Nature Conservancy, which does a pretty good job of protecting land merely by purchasing it and saying, "Well, let's let it be. Let's let the wild happen here." So in the Headwaters area, what you had was some pretty intense negotiations came right down to the 11th hour. Finally the government stepping and saying the only way to preserve these redwoods is to purchase it outright and give it to the American people. Now, in the Governor's state, I'd like to ask him, there's something real interesting. They continue to refuse to allow environmental groups to purchase grazing rights. These are lands that are supposed to be used for trust funds for schools. So if an environmental group comes and outbids the cattle grazers, as I understand it, they're still not allowed to make that bid. Is that correct, Governor?

ANDRUS: Tim, that was exactly right until April first of this year, when the Supreme Court of the State of Idaho made the determination that it was unconstitutional. There's a meeting going on today in Boise with the land board to re-auction 38 different parcels, so that it will be the highest financial use of that land as far as the school endowment is concerned. But you're right, that's the way it used to be. But that is the changing west.

CURWOOD: The west is now the fastest-growing region of the nation. Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, and Las Vegas are growing faster than any others. Las Vegas is going to be bigger than what, Detroit, Tim Egan?

EGAN: Yes, bigger than metro Detroit. It's an interesting milestone, too, because Detroit, in the age of the automobile, was thought to be king of the mighty new American industrial age. Now Vegas is king of what? Glitz? Glamour? Excess? Recreation? Take your pick. (Curwood laughs)

CURWOOD: Well, how does all this growth, then, change the fundamental nature of the debate over public lands and natural resources in the west?

EGAN: Well, there are more people who, as the Governor has pointed out, have different ideas. I mean, this is where you see democracy played out on a very intense level, which is when people move into cities from somewhere else, they suddenly look around and say, "Oh my gosh, there's all this public land around us." And they want to have a say in it and they realize maybe it's been used for cattle beforehand, or maybe it's now going into, they're selling it off for subdivisions. So, I think in my heart, and maybe I'm wrong, but I'd like to continue to believe that as we get older, as more people move here, ultimately we still will see the best value of the west is to keep it somewhat as it is, to not destroy its native state, to not try to dam every river that's free-flowing. To not try to, you know, eliminate one species after the other. To not try to remake this west into something that it's not. That's part of the problem. People come here and try to remake this place. There's a native west that was nearly destroyed, and I see hopefully a lot of the native west trying to come back.

CURWOOD: Speaking of hope, I wanted to ask you, Governor, about the salmon and the controversy, the placement now of salmon on the threatened to Endangered Species List. The watersheds that go out there through Seattle and such. Do moves such as the recent placement of salmon add fuel to the controversy out there?

ANDRUS: Absolutely, but I'd have to be candid with you and say there's very little hope for the anadromous fisheries upstream, above the eight dams in the Columbia and the Snake. Now, on the coastal streams, John Kitsauber, the Governor of Oregon, has done an outstanding job of cleaning up and making it possible for the rejuvenation of those rivers that are not imperiled by dams. But the dams in the lower Snake and the Columbia are managed in such a way by an autocratic group called the Army Corps of Engineers, that they really don't care about the fish. They care more about the kilowatt hours and doing it their way, with their engineering mentality, and we already have some of the salmon species that are extinct and others that are just marginal. The other anadromous fish like the steelhead, they're headed the same direction. Upstream it's tough, and it's simply because we have such a bunch of knotheads in the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration. They will not listen to reason.

EGAN: You see, Governor, I wish I could call them a bunch of knotheads.

ANDRUS: But yeah, but see I'"m retired or semi-retired or in the twilight of a mediocre political career. (Egan laughs) And Tim, you're still working as a journalist. But they're a bunch of knotheads.

EGAN: That's right.

CURWOOD: Well now, these folks would say, "Wait a second, how much is a fish worth?" I mean, to bring back the salmon you're talking about spending billions of dollars, possibly, to remove all those dams, to make all these fixes.

ANDRUS: But we made billions of dollars to destroy the fish. A Chinook salmon is worth -- well, it's a priceless amount. But the anadromous fishing industry in Idaho would be worth, today, in today's dollars, about $160 million to the economy, compared to what it was before the dams went in. Now, you know, it's out there, its minuscule. We've got one Congressperson that made the ridiculous, idiotic statement that, "Well, salmon aren't extinct. I can still go down to Albertson's and buy them in a can."

EGAN: (Laughs) That would have been Representative Helen Chenowith? A Republican of your own district --

ANDRUS: (Laughs) You got -- a neighbor, I didn't want to give her the publicity but that's the one. (Egan laughs)

EGAN: I think that there is hope for the salmon on the coast, as the Governor said. Where I live in Seattle, there is a monumental effort to try to bring salmon back to these rivers that flow through a metro area of about 2.5 million people. That's more than live in the entire state of Idaho. The reason I have hope right now is because at this stage, at least, even though a lot of people are urged to cut back on some of their activities, to pay more in taxes, to not use fertilizer on their lawns, everybody seems very enthusiastic about it. You have these polls that show 80, 85% of the people polled are willing to make some sacrifice in their lives to bring salmon back to the rivers that course through western Washington and western Oregon. Now, where the Governor's taking about, upstream past all these dams, it does look pretty bleak. I would simply like to ask him what he thinks are the real political possibility of some of those dams far upstream being breached on the Snake.

ANDRUS: If you're asking me what is the best for the salmon, it's a free-flowing stream. Will those dams be breached? Not in my opinion, because it's the politics. The science is there to breach them but the politics is not there to breach them. We simply do not have the votes to do it. It would take Congressional action, Tim, to breach any of those dams, and that's simply not going to happen.

CURWOOD: All right, gentlemen, we are just about out of time. But before we go, your thoughts. Is the west at an important historical crossroads? Are we making decisions today that will affect things for the generations to come?

EGAN: I think absolutely we're at a historic crossroads, both in the management of Federal lands, which you see through new philosophy in the Forest Service, the idea that wilderness has more, has equal footing with some of the extractive industries. New attitude toward grazing, those sorts of things. I think all that's changing in the management. And the other thing that's happened is that (sigh) we have so much growth going on that I think that some of this, "we could lose it if we don't watch out" philosophy. And that's what's feeding a lot of the new -- a lot of the new folks that come to the cities. I was going to say the great western writer who's no longer with us, Wallace Stegner, had a wonderful line. It's used quite a bit by people who love the west. He said that the west, and more specifically, wilderness, are "the geography of hope." And I think about that line time and time again. And I think it really defines what wild lands in the west really mean to people.

ANDRUS: It is one of the priceless jewels that still exists, and Tim's comments about Stegner's discussion of wilderness, what it is, is very appropriate. It's still there. Wise use, we can't recover some that we've lost, but thank goodness we have the vastness here to where we can still have it both ways.

CURWOOD: Well gentlemen, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today. Cecil Andrus is author of Cecil Andrus: Politics Western Style. And Tim Egan's new book is called Lasso in the Wind. Governor, Tim, thanks for joining me today.

ANDRUS: Thank you very much.

EGAN: Thank you, Steve.



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