July 31, 2008

The Salt Lake Tribune Tom Wharton Column

By Tom Wharton, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 31--When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took office, some outdoor users celebrated while others braced themselves for conflict.

As the Bush administration winds down, there have been few surprises or notable conservation successes.

Gun-rights advocates who place the Second Amendment above conservation are no doubt delighted.

Off-highway vehicle and snowmobile groups should be pleased with the bent toward multiple use of public lands, rulings against those who would ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone National Park, and decreased funding for agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service who don't have the manpower to enforce regulations.

Groups focusing only on hunting rights and huntable species at the expense of more holistic wildlife-management approaches might be somewhat happy.

Others got what they expected with the election of two men whose careers almost always have favored consumption of public resources over conservation. Wilderness designation has pretty much been in a holding pattern. Public land-management agencies have been highly politicized, with good science often discarded when it clashed with preconceived notions. Thousands of acres of public lands have been opened to drilling for oil and natural gas. And the Endangered Species Act has been all but ignored.

Both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain would be improvements over Bush-Cheney, though some of McCain's positions are disappointing, given his maverick reputation for supporting wilderness and conservation in the past. Each candidate pledges to take a more balanced approach to public lands and outdoor recreation management.

Bush and Cheney are capable of great mischief even as they're on the way out. In Utah, the big concern is the administration's hell-bent desire to lease as many lands to oil-shale development as possible with little or no regard for environmental consequences by proposing rule changes that make it easier to lease.

What's the hurry to change the rules? Thousands of acres of Western lands containing oil shale are already under lease, and no one has shown this is a commercially viable way of producing oil. Why not wait until the technology exists before issuing leases? Nationally, the Bush administration considered allowing farmers to opt out of Conservation Reserve Programs early without penalty before nixing that idea this week. Since CRP lands prevent erosion, help produce millions of migratory waterfowl such as ducks, and are valuable to wildlife, this was something good, though some of those lands may be put back in production when contracts expire.

The Bush and Cheney years have not been good for conservation or wildlife. Obama or McCain would be an improvement. They couldn't be any worse.

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