Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden, Democrat and senior U.S. senator from Oregon, is poised to take over the Senate Energy Committee.

With the election finally over, it is timely to think about the direction environmental policy might take over the next few years. In obvious ways the election merely returned us to the status quo as there were no changes in control of the branches of government. But early speculation suggests some major changes in key congressional committee leadership positions and perhaps in the administration as well. Ron Wyden of Oregon, for example, is slated to take over the Senate Energy Committee with the retirement of Jeff Bingaman of Arizona. There has been some speculation, whether informed or not, about the intentions of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to stay or go. There are indications that the next few years may create opportunities for change and demand rethinking of some cherished assumptions, though, at the same time, conditions are ripe for a continued stalemate on environmental policy.

First, it is abundantly clear that environmental and energy policies are now fully joined at the hip. Some might say that our energy policy is our environmental policy and vice versa. Thus, for example, if President Barack Obama approves the rest of the Keystone Pipeline, does this mean the U.S. has a default policy on climate change as subordinate to carbon-based energy production and even national security? Not necessarily, but coordinating these two areas is awfully difficult, with economic, national security, climate, biodiversity, recreation and many other values and perspectives all intertwined and contending for primacy. Likewise, does new action on climate change suggest unfriendly polices towards oil and gas? I’m not sure it does.

It’s not clear whether the U.S. has a coherent set of ideas about energy policy. It is clear that the command and control style of environmental regulation is slowly giving way to newer ideas, such as the cap and trade approach to CO2 just initiated in California. The California effort bears watching, as does an apparent reset on the conversation over some sort of carbon tax. The latter idea, of course, could end up hostage to the discourse over climate; one does get weary of the kindergarten-like name calling around “climate deniers” and “climate Nazis,” which is seemingly what happens when advocacy scientists meet passionate interest groups. Still, it is a long road to the destination of a new energy economy. The latest data on U.S. energy shows that renewable energy amounts to only about 10 percent of energy production, including hydropower. Change takes time.

Second, all things are constrained by budget issues. Agencies will have fewer resources to work with, unless we see some progress on budget and deficit reduction. Holdbacks are likely. Thus, it is not inconceivable, for example, to see some momentum for higher commercial fees on users of the public lands. Then, to take that discussion a step further, budget concerns may become a vehicle to drive reforms of the structure of the executive branch.

An example of this restructuring that would interest Westerners goes something like this: Do we really need four federal land agencies with overlapping functions spread out over two different executive branch departments? I’m not suggesting that consolidation is an ideal future, but I am suggesting that the current arrangement may not stay sustainable. There are proposals to transfer Bureau of Land Management forestlands in Oregon to the U.S. Forest Service, to set up federal lands trusts and even for states to seize federal public lands. Given that both Arizona and Utah acted downright constitutionally crazy on that latter issue, it is refreshing to note that actual Arizonians rejected such a move by a 2 to 1 margin. It may not have helped that the seize-the-federal-land crowd actually included the Grand Canyon (the Grand Canyon!) in their Proposition 120 proposal, but we now have empirical evidence that Arizonans actually like their federal lands federal. Still, we do have the looming sage grouse endangered species listing decision hanging over our heads. There is frantic activity trying to avoid the listing by putting habitat protection efforts in place in key western states, but species decline remains a distinct possibility. If the sage grouse is listed, one can expect “war on the west” rhetoric to reach crescendo levels. But know this: last summer’s fires may have put key sage grouse habitat in bad enough shape to make listing a foregone conclusion, despite most everyone’s best intentions.

The sage grouse listing process is instructional as to how we make decisions on western environmental issues, a question which I assume is of most interest to readers. “Politics,” is the easy, and often the correct, answer. But more and more frequently some say “science” is the driving force. I would argue that science is a necessary but insufficient condition for environmental decision making, and whenever people call for best science they are really calling for science that backs up where they wanted to go anyway. The recent dust up over an academically focused article that called for the elimination of cattle grazing (blogged about by Rocky Barker of The Idaho Statesman) in the name of mitigating for climate change is a good example. See Adapting to Climate Change on Western Public Lands: Addressing the Ecological Effects of Domestic, Wild, and Feral Ungulates, led by Oregon State University ecologist Robert L. Beschta.I showed it to two colleagues in the science world (not at Boise State University) with resumes a mile long and they both had the same reaction: “That’s not neutral science, it’s advocacy.” The only way science gets to resolve difficult policy choices is if we put it in charge, and my sense is that most people don’t want to do that.

This leads to consideration of painful but wonderfully citizen driven collaborative efforts. These efforts demand good science as necessary to help them arrive at sound consensus. I’m talking here about the Owyhee Initiative, the various forest-based collaboratives supported by the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership, the Idaho Roadless Commission, and others. These groups seem to be one of the only venues these days able to build the political capital needed to sustain difficult decisions, when they work.

When the collaboratives get pushed out of bounds, other things can happen. One unfortunate example is a recent decision by  the national office of the Bureau of Land Management to overrule a collaborative effort to locate the best path for the new Gateway West transmission line. It’s a complex decision to be sure. Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter—never one to let the feds get by with what he would say is a lousy decision—reacted by setting up a new position in his office, a “federal/state” coordinator. While perhaps in need of refinement, the new coordinator position calls for the protection of the “Idaho way of life.” Living in Boise’s North End, I assume that doesn’t necessarily include my neighbors and me. It nonetheless is an idea worth refining. We simply need a better way for those living closer to decisions to have voice.

Jon Jarvis

Jon Jarvis is the first biologist to run the U.S. National Park Service.

I’ll close with a message that still resonates around the world. On August 25, 2016, during the coming four-year cycle, the National Park Service will turn 100. (Disclaimer: I was a ranger at Glen Canyon.) I’m guessing, or maybe hoping, that the director who presides over this event is a former Idahoan. Jon Jarvis was superintendent of Craters of the Moon National Monument for a time; he is the first biologist to head the Park Service. I think that, overall, the national parks and the national park idea was something those damn feds did right. Those feds were all of us.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.