Federal land officials have been stepping down to make way for Donald Trump appointees, a move that many in the West hope will lead to big policy changes.
Places like Elko, where the economy is rooted in natural resources and the federal government controls the vast majority of acreage, would benefit the most from a new direction. For example, a key issue to be decided in the opening months of 2017 is the proposed ban on mining across 10 million acres for the next 20 years.
The proposal is the result of sage-grouse policy that crystallized over the past few years under President Obama’s Interior appointee, Sally Jewell, and her Bureau of Land Management chief, former Elkoan Neil Kornze. Steered by the “Grouseketeers,” they did an end-run around the Endangered Species Act and used their regulatory authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to impose restrictions.
Sage grouse are plentiful in the West – there are literally hundreds of thousands of them – but they historically demonstrate wild population swings. The bird made a big comeback in population around the same time that Jewell decided not to list them as threatened.
Still, the administration enacted a two-year mining ban and proposed extending it for two decades. The 20-year environmental impact statement was released at the end of 2016, and citizens have until March 30 to comment on it.
By then we expect Trump will have his own managers in place, and they will choose one of the five alternatives in the document. The “Nevada” option would exclude about half a million acres in three states from the withdrawal. Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Nevada Commission on Mineral Resources developed the alternative, which includes conservation efforts by major mining companies to counterbalance habitat loss caused by mining.
We don’t know how Trump will handle the issue, but he is seen as favorable toward industry and his Cabinet picks have signaled a new direction. On the other hand, during the campaign he was supportive of protecting public land, and his Interior pick has been an opponent of federal land exchanges. It is likely that Trump’s policies in this area – and others — will be more pragmatic than partisan.
Like most people in the eastern half of the United States, Trump did not have a firm concept of how vast the western landscape is and how much of it is controlled by the government. Even more complicated is the “checkerboard” land issue that we hope to see resolved, in which every other square mile alternates between public and private ownership.
When it comes to issues such as the mining ban, Trump is more likely to listen to industry leaders such as the National Mining Association, whose vice president for external communications said the ban is not only unnecessary, but also destructive to the mining industry and to the larger national economy.
“This massive land withdrawal, the largest in history, is a spiteful and wholly unnecessary measure for protecting wildlife habitat that isn’t jeopardized by mining and appears instead to be a parting gift to activists who care nothing for the economic consequences to either the impacted states or the economy,” Luke Popovich recently told a news agency.
Whichever direction our new president swings on these issues, we expect there will be plenty of disagreement. Donald Trump will surely be the most controversial president since … Barack Obama. Even something as simple as being sworn into office has become a theater for opponents. Many Democrats are reacting the same way Beyonce fans did when Taylor Swift won the MTV Video Music Awards. They should either put on their big-boy pants — as Sen. Elizabeth Warren once told Donald Trump to do — or take their toys and go home.
The next presidential administration will surely stand out in stark contrast to the past eight years. We hope that issues as complicated as western land use are handled rationally and fairly. Interior nominee Ryan Zinke has been described as an admirer of President Theodore Roosevelt, and testified this week that management of federal lands should be done under a “multiple-use” model set forth by Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
We agree. And under that philosophy, “no action” or Nevada’s sagebrush withdrawal alternative would be preferred over the outgoing administration’s chosen path on mining.