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Here in northern New Mexico, we've got an ongoing issue regarding the Valle Vidal, where the Bush Administration has been moving full-speed ahead for natural gas development.  It's a wonderful high country area in the northernmost part of the state, important for the local economy for the elk hunters it attracts.  And so on.

Valle Vidal may be a cause celèbre in these parts, but similar struggles to save wild places have flared up throughout the West against the Bush Administration's heavy-handed, industry-friendly policies: related to logging, roadless areas, endangered species, resources extraction and so on.  Associated disputes have been finding their way into the federal courts (since it involves public lands).  And judges in the federal courts don't like the blatant disregard for the law they've been seeing.

Cross-posted to ePluribusMedia.

This from yesterday's Washington Post:
Using language that suggests they are fed up with the Bush administration, federal judges across the West have issued a flurry of rulings in recent weeks, chastising the government for repeated and sometimes willful failure to enforce laws protecting fish, forests, wildlife and clean air.
The rulings come at a time when an emerging bipartisan coalition of western politicians, hunters, anglers and homeowners has joined conservation groups in objecting to the rapid pace and environmental consequences of President Bush's policies for energy extraction on federal land.

This is the coalition which emerged, roaring, to defeat Richard Pombo's public lands giveaway last fall.  It's the same political force which has helped put Democratic governors like Brian Schweitzer (MT) and Dave Freudenthal (WY) in office, will send Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) into retirement next month, and should show a lot of blue on the Presidential electoral map for 2008.  As our own Devilstower wrote in an excellent piece entitled How Richard Pombo Saved the World:

It turned out that what Richard Pombo did was so underhanded, and such a threat to our public lands, that someone did notice.  That someone included the Wilderness Society, but Pombo didn't care about them.  He'd been giving them the middle finger for years.  It included Earthworks, but Pombo didn't care about them either.  He thinks they're terrorists.  That someone included Trout Unlimited, and Pombo didn't care about 100,000 mostly Republican hunters and fishermen who... wait a sec, what was that?

Trout Unlimited, the sportsmen's group (whose membership is two to one Republican) emailed its roughly 100,000 members and contacted regional editorial boards to spotlight the fight. News spread like wildfire--western sportsmen were outraged that public lands where they hunt and fish might be put on the auction block. Once they knew the stakes, local hook-and-bullet organizations held phone-bank days, organized letter-writing campaigns, and scheduled visits to regional Senate offices. A petition signed by 758 sportsmen's clubs affiliated with National Wildlife Federation, from the Great Falls Bowhunters Association to the Custer Rod and Gun Club, landed on elected officials' desks in Washington just weeks later. "These lands, so important to sportsmen and women, are open to every American, rich and poor alike," the letter read. "We believe it is wrong to put them up for mining companies and other commercial interests to buy at cut-rate prices."

So maybe Richard Pombo wasn't convinced, but fellow western senators were.  Even that favorite go to guy on gambling, Conrad Burns, declared that Pombo's provisions were dead.

And that was good, but something more important had happened.  To defeat the Pombo amendment, groups like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Society had worked together.  They'd actually stood in the same room and plotted strategy to save public lands, instead of accusing each other of wanting to seize those lands for their own purposes.  Just like that, Richard Pombo pushed two forces together who had been separated -- or at each other's throats -- for more than thirty years.  Just like that, and totally against anything Pombo would have wanted, he might have done more to save the world than any person of either party since the days of Ed Muskie.

Here's a few clips on these recent court decisions.  On the roadless rule:

A federal district court today ordered reinstatement of the Clinton era roadless rule to protect almost 50 million acres of wild national forests and grasslands from road building, logging, and development. The court order is a stunning victory for all Americans who value America's great natural areas and reverses the Bush administration's efforts to open these last great natural areas to development interests.

On drilling in an Alaska wetland region:

The US District Court for Alaska today issued a strongly worded preliminary decision that could save the internationally significant wildlife habitat around Teshekpuk Lake in the Northeast Planning Area of the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska (NPRA).

In the decision released today, US District Judge James Singleton, Jr. stated that the Department of Interior failed to consider the cumulative environmental impacts of widespread oil and gas drilling in the NPRA, a key point in conservation groups' arguments against the plan to lease the area around Teshekpuk Lake, and signaled that he intends to overrule the Department's plans for leasing the area.

"Having failed to fully consider the cumulative effects of the proposed development in NE [Northeast planning area of the] NPRA and the previously proposed action in the NWPA [Northwest NPRA planning area], Defendants have violated NEPA and abused their discretion," writes Judge Singleton in the preliminary decision, which was made public today.

NEPA's the key environmental law which mandates public input and review.  Environmental Impact Statements are the most well-known feature of that law, but it requires consideration of economic and social impacts as well.  Pombo's been working to eviscerate that one, too, with freshman Rep. Cathy McMorris (WA-05) assigned to head up the effort:

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a landmark environmental statute that has protected America's natural heritage on land and sea. For over 30 years, NEPA has provided an essential tool in helping federal managers do their jobs. When done right, it promotes sound and accepted decisions. Specifically, NEPA requires federal agencies to study and disclose the environmental effects of their actions and to include the public in their decision-making
The House Resources Committee has established a Task Force to review and purportedly "improve" NEPA. The Task Force is led by Rep. Cathy McMorris (R-WA), with Rep. Tom Udall (D-NM) serving as the ranking Democrat. Over the next several months, the Task Force intends to hold six field hearings -- the first was on April 23 in Spokane, Washington -- before issuing a report with its findings and recommendations in September.

It's all the more reason to work to retake the House.  In this case, Jerry McNerney, who's running against Pombo, and Peter Goldmark, who's challenging McMorris, are of particular import.  (Please support their efforts.)  Anyhow, back to the WaPo:

The most scathing and exasperated of the recent court orders came late last month out of Portland, where U.S. District Judge James A. Redden has presided for six years over a stalled federal effort to prevent endangered salmon from going extinct in the Columbia and Snake rivers.   Federal agencies "have repeatedly and collectively failed to demonstrate a willingness to do what is necessary" under the Endangered Species Act to save fish at risk of extinction, wrote Redden, who was appointed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

Responding to Redden's language and to other recent critical comments by federal judges in the West, Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia J. Magnuson said: "It is regrettable whenever a court chooses to examine and speculate about the motives of a federal agency rather than applying the applicable laws to the facts of the case."

Other decisions (mostly in response to Interior Dept. actions under Secretary Gale Norton) cited by WaPo are:

  • U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer in San Francisco has ruled against logging activities in the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
  • Another California Judge deep-sixed a Bush administration plan giving governors authority to choose what federal lands will be logged, mined and drilled.
  • U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy in Montana chastised the Administration for jettisoning science in considering listing the North American wolvering as endangered.
  • Deputy Administrative Judge Bruce R. Harris (DoI Land Appeals Board) halted energy development on 20,000 acres in Wyoming, because the Bureau of Land Management ignored air quality and wildlife data in promoting the drilling plan.

These decisions, for the most part, will be appealed to the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco, which is particularly unpopular with the Right.  And from there to the Supreme Court.  We can't afford another Bush Supreme Court nominee going before a Republican Senate.  So, please everyone, keep up your good work in efforts to change the House and Senate majorities from Red to Blue.  Current events have been leaning in our favor.  But it's no time to let up now!

environmentalist has diaried extensively on the subject of Valle Vidal (more from the archives).  (In case you want to read more about New Mexico's Valle Vidal and related issues throughout the West.)

Originally posted to Land of Enchantment on Fri Oct 06, 2006 at 02:31 PM PDT.

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