Thursday, November 5, 2009

Obama moves quickly to preserve the West

Arizona Republic

Policies favoring environment over industries

WASHINGTON - In the never-ending struggle in the West over whether public lands should be harvested for their valuable metals, fuels and timber or set aside for future generations of people and wildlife, environmental interests have gained the upper hand since President Barack Obama moved into the White House.
Obama has begun a dramatic reversal in Western land-use policy that already has had a major impact in Arizona. In a sharp departure from the Bush administration, the Obama team has halted new uranium-mining claims near the Grand Canyon, proposed new preserves for wild mustangs and funded the expansion of the Petrified Forest National Park.
Obama also signed into law the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 that protected thousands of miles of scenic, historic and recreational trails, including the 807-mile Arizona National Scenic Trail from the state line with Mexico to the Utah border. The sweeping bill designated more than 2 million acres as wilderness area - nearly as much protected land as President George W. Bush created in two terms in office.

"The environmentalists have been waiting in the wings for eight years," said Paul Lewis, assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. "Now, they have a chance to be heard again."
Environmentalists' allies in Congress say they are hopeful their legislation can become law now that they have the support of the White House.
"The previous administration was really all about extraction of resources from the land," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. "Now, there's an effort to strike a balance between extraction and protection of the environment. That's a healthy change."

'Land-use control' blasted

Not everyone agrees.
"As a property-rights person, I would view what's happening as massive land acquisitions and land-use control," said R.J. Smith, adjunct environmental scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates free enterprise and limited government and opposes most environmental regulation. "There's been a push to create these huge wild lands areas and connect them with corridors that are designed for wildlife rather than for people."

That does not mean the Obama administration does not see dollar signs when it looks west. While the Bush administration went after the region's oil and gas reserves as a way to achieve greater energy independence, the Obama administration is shifting the focus to solar, wind and geothermal power as it looks for ways to boost both the economy and the state of the environment.

Its greatest challenge may be whether it can develop those renewable resources without running into some of the same environmentalists who worried about the Bush administration allowing the destruction of environmentally sensitive land.
Environmentalists say the public is finally being heard.
For eight years, the Bush administration crafted policies that opened doors wider for multiple uses on public lands. Users such as mining and logging companies won greater access in some areas, and federal agencies were given greater leeway in allowing development.
Conservationists say the damage from those policies was dramatic. In the Rockies, for instance, roads were built to serve new natural gas fields, destroying wildlife habitat.

New focus on conservation

One of the biggest changes has come from the Bureau of Land Management, whose new director, Bob Abbey of Nevada, issued guidance to agency employees in October that ensures increased environmental protection for national monuments and conservation areas.
Among the places that stand to benefit from the new emphasis on protection is Arizona's Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, which the Bush administration had planned to open up to off-road vehicles, said Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center.
"The BLM has now made it clear that conservation trumps other uses, and that's good news for everyone who wants to see these special places protected for future generations," she said.
The Obama administration also has ensured that money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund is used to benefit Arizona national parks, said Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Obama's first budget included $4.5 million to help pay for the expansion of the Petrified Forest National Park, Dahl said.
Although Congress had approved the expansion during the Bush administration, Bush did not include any funding for the project in his budget, he added.
"I'm excited that the president has brought in people who are more focused on the real mission of the national parks," Dahl said.

Arizona in middle of push

Arizona could soon find itself in the middle of the Obama administration's new push to make solar power and other renewable-energy development a top priority for public land.
Twenty-four tracts in six states - Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah - are under study by the BLM and the Interior Department to see if they can support large-scale solar installations. The study is expected to be completed by the end of 2010.
Conservationists support the effort in concept but say there could be disputes over where best to develop solar sites that will not harm environmentally sensitive lands.
"We want to encourage the administration and the industry to look at areas that have already been disturbed, such as old mining claims in Arizona," said Jeremy Garncarz, managing director for the Wilderness Society's Wilderness Support Center in Durango, Colo., which works on Arizona conservation efforts. "I think there's an incredible opportunity there to get this right from the get-go."

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