Western GOP lawmakers get on the land protection bandwagon

Posted: Sunday, March 26, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- When he is back home in western Colorado, Republican Rep. Scott McInnis often rails against ''ivory tower bureaucrats'' wanting to impose new restrictions on the 23 million acres of federal land in his district.

But after Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt indicated that Colorado National Monument should be expanded, McInnis responded by introducing a bill to add additional protections to 140,000 acres next to the monument near Grand Junction.

Western Republicans once were reliable opponents of new restrictions on federal land use, arguing that new limits on logging, mining, grazing or recreation would hurt the people who make their living that way. But now, GOP lawmakers in the west are sponsoring plans to buy or protect millions of acres in their home states.

One big reason: President Clinton can unilaterally add restrictions to federal lands by declaring them national monuments, and he's not afraid to use that power. Clinton has created three new monuments and expanded a fourth in Arizona and California this year, and Babbitt has said he will recommend more monuments if Congress does not act to protect several other areas.

Environmentalists say they are encouraged but wary of the new willingness of GOP lawmakers to embrace land protections.

''There's a lot of potential for protecting some special areas this year,'' said Melanie Griffin of the Sierra Club. ''But it's going to be a long year, because there are a lot of people who don't want to see these victories move forward.''

Some of the land plans backed by Republicans include:

-- A proposal to declare about 2.4 million acres of wilderness on federal land in Utah sponsored by Rep. Jim Hansen, whose district includes much of that land. Wilderness is the strictest federal land designation, prohibiting nearly every human activity except non-motorized uses such as hiking or cross-country skiing. Environmentalists have criticized the proposal as inadequate for protecting all Utah areas with wilderness potential.

-- A plan by California Rep. Mary Bono to create the 272,000-acre Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument near Palm Springs. Babbitt said this month that Bono's bill did not go far enough to protect the area and would risk a presidential veto if passed in its current form.

-- A bill by Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe to create the 207,000-acre Las Cienegas National Conservation Area southeast of Tucson. Under Kolbe's plan, new restrictions would apply only to about 50,000 acres in the area which are already owned by the federal government.

But no one has been more prolific than McInnis, who took up a cause started by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and helped push through legislation last year creating the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in west-central Colorado.

McInnis also is backing plans to create the 18,000-acre Spanish Peaks Wilderness near La Veta and expand the Great Sand Dunes National Monument near Alamosa and upgrade it to a national park.

But this week, McInnis and Campbell, R-Colo., abruptly backed off of plans to protect 164,000 acres of mesas and canyons dotted with Indian ruins as the Canyons of the Ancients National Conservation Area. The proposal was meant to head off a possible national monument designation by Clinton, an option Babbitt has said he might seek if Congress did not protect the area.

Spokesman Chris Changery said Campbell ''believes the bill has drawn an insurmountable amount of opposition'' and asked that next month's hearing on the plan be canceled.

''You've got the environmentalists saying it doesn't go far enough and it's bad and you've got the property rights groups saying it goes too far and it's bad,'' said Changery. ''As opposed to Secretary Babbitt, he's not going to legislate from Washington something that's got a lot of local opposition.''

McInnis spokesman Joshua Penry said McInnis also was dropping his support of the Canyons of the Ancients plan, though McInnis had said March 15 that ''Babbitt has a point'' about wanting more protection for the area.

McInnis also has strongly criticized Babbitt and the Clinton administration for other land protections, particularly the 1996 designation of the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. McInnis said his land protection plans are driven by local desires, not by Washington political concerns.

''We start at the local level. We build a consensus at the local level ... We're not going out and seizing (land),'' McInnis said.

McInnis and several of his GOP colleagues cite another reason for the recent shift toward more land protection: Their voters want it.

''I think Coloradoans want to have a balance,'' said Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo. ''Private property rights and private ownership, that's important, but I think Coloradoans are also concerned about what their state's going to look like 20 years down the road. They don't want to see everything developed up.''

Tensions also have eased somewhat between Babbitt and GOP lawmakers who have criticized the Clinton administration for making land-use rules through executive actions rather than consulting with Congress.

''This is a tough thing to say if you want to get re-elected in (my) district, but we've had some constructive conversations with Babbitt,'' McInnis said. ''We can't ignore him, but I think for the first time he understands he can't ignore us. That's what's brought us both to the table, and I think we're moving in a positive direction.''

Babbitt joked at a House Resources subcommittee this month that some Westerners ''advise their neighbors to batten down the hatches and protect their firstborn'' when he comes to town. He said he preferred to have Congress make land preservation decisions, but added he was prepared to ask Clinton to act to protect some areas if Congress would not.

''I believe we can work these issues out. I believe congressional designation is the right way to go,'' Babbitt said.


On the Net:

Bureau of Land Management: www.blm.gov/

Rep. Scott McInnis: www.house.gov/mcinnis/

Site discussing the area covered by the Canyons of the Ancients proposal: www.co.blm.gov/mdo/acecmeets.htm

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