Republican actions cause fear of roll back of Clinton’s environmental protections

A government report on fossil fuel potential in newly-designated National Monuments, a consultation on their uses and failure to legally protect a rule blocking road development in national forests have raised doubts that the areas are to be protected as intended.

“We must modify our public land policies so we can start solving our own energy problems instead of looking to other governments to solve them for us,” House Resources Committee Chairman James V. Hansen, a Utah Republican, said as he announced the governmental US Geological Survey. The report names five of the 21 monuments Clinton that created from 1999 as having the potential to produce moderate to high volumes of oil and gas.

Opponents of oil and gas exploration fear that the government will turn to the five monuments if the Bush administration fails to get Congress to allow controversial oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The five are: Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument; California’s Coastal National Monument and Carrizon Plain National Monument; Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington state; and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana. The report also said that a sixth monument, the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument in Utah, might have “mammoth coal and coal bed gas reserves.”

In the same week, Interior Secretary Gale Norton asked state and local officials in the nine states and one territory where the new monuments are located for suggestions on how the federal lands should be used and managed. “Are there boundary adjustments that the department should consider recommending?” Norton reportedly asked Arizona Governor Jane Hull. “Are there existing uses inside these monuments that we should accommodate? I would like to know your views on vehicle use, access to private (land) inholdings, rights-of-way, grazing and water rights, as well as the wide spectrum of other traditional multiple uses.” In February, Norton announced that there would be no governmental initiative to adjust the boundaries of the new national monuments and alter the rules governing commercial activities within them (see related story).

Norton has been deeply critical of Clinton and former Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, for failing to consult with local interests before designating the monuments and for not providing adequate funds for their management. “We are dedicated to charting a new course of responsibility. President Bush and I want to partner with local people at the beginning – not at the end of the process,” Norton said. Clinton, under the 1906 Antiquities Act, created more National Monuments during his tenure than any other president, including some 4,700 square miles (12,000 sq km) in his final 13 months in office.

Environmentalists, however, see Norton’s comments as proof of the beginning of reducing the protections. “This is an obvious attempt to solicit ideas from people who oppose the national monuments as to how to unravel them and get rid of the protections afforded the sensitive resources within them,”’ said Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society.

The House Resources Committee approved legislation changing the status of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, which Clinton expanded 10-fold last autumn, to that of a national preserve so that hunters can continue to use it.

Meanwhile, in federal court on 30 March, the Bush Administration did not defend the Roadless Area Conservation Rule introduced under Clinton against a request from timber giant Boise Cascade and the state of Idaho for a preliminary injunction and delayed commenting on the process until 4 May. The rule, which would ban roadbuilding and logging in roadless areas of national forests (see related story), is being defended by eight environmental groups represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

Boise Cascade and the state of Idaho argue that logging and roadbuilding are necessary to reduce the risk of forest fires but Earthjustice see only selfish interests. “Today’s action is yet another example of [the Bush administration’s] extreme and dangerous agenda targeted at gutting America’s environmental protections,” said Doug Honnold, attorney for Earthjustice. “This rule may not be popular with the extractive interests who helped get Bush into office, but it is extremely popular with the American public and it should be allowed to be implemented.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie