Ending the West's environmental stagnation

If Democrats show that protecting the environment means more jobs, there's hope for real environmental progress, economic salvation and a retreat from old animosities
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A field trip in Montana.

If Democrats show that protecting the environment means more jobs, there's hope for real environmental progress, economic salvation and a retreat from old animosities

For the last several years, there's been a lot of political focus on the West as the new region that will shape American politics and the prospects of the Democrats. Seeing how Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and very nearly Montana went in the presidential vote of 2008, and factoring in the rapid population growth the entire region is seeing, it's a pretty safe bet that Democrats are going to be serious about building up their base in the Rockies.

But they've still got the past to deal with, and a lot of little landmines, courtesy the Bush administration, to maneuver through. Hard as it may be to believe, given the totality of the destruction left in Bush's wake (the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, our standing in the world, important bits of the Constitution), the past administration didn't pursue its wrecking-ball policy on the environment just because they liked destroying things. It wasn't even, entirely, as a gift to their cronies in industry.

No, the over-the-top anti-environment policies of the past administration were all that and more. They were a way to perpetuate the long-going battle in the West's rural communities against government, against conservationists, and against Democrats. In setting policy after policy that they probably knew would either end up in court, or in reversal by a Democratic administration, they could continue to perpetuate the lie that Democrats (which means environmentalists and lawyers) are anti-job. All of the midnight regulations they pumped out in the last several months to open up sensitive public lands to drilling, every effort to open up just one more bit of roadless area, or national forest, were setting up the next fight over jobs versus the environment.

It's been an incredibly effective tool for Republicans since the late 1970s. It puts the conservation community always with its back against the wall, ensures that they will always have to be fighting, and ensures that those other demons — lawyers — will be fully employed in tying up progress in the courts. And it will all be the Democrat's fault, because when it comes to a jobs versus environment fight, it's always the Democrat's fault.

That tactic has lost some in effectiveness in the last eight years, however. Rural, and particularly Western, citizens have started to see the downside to unregulated industrialization on the lands that have always been there for them to enjoy. When fishing and hunting grounds shrunk, new partnerships between the hook and gun crowd and environmentalists started to spring up. Farmers and ranchers started having to worry about whether their lifeblood — water — was poisoned. Small communities, like Pinedale, Wyoming had to start grappling with big-city social ills because of the huge influx of transient oil and gas workers.

But old habits die hard, and as the economic downturn starts closing more mills and mines, the old scapegoats are going to be blamed again. Unless.

Unless President Obama and the Democrats in Congress see the incredible opportunity open to them now to shift the jobs versus environment debate to their favor, to a new equation: protecting the environment means more jobs.

I've written about the potential for rebuilding our national parks. For every dollar federal dollar invested in the infrastructure of our parks, there's a return of at least four dollars in economic value to the public. But it's not just the national parks where investment would mean jobs.

Joe Kerkvliet, an environmental economist for The Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies Regional office, wrote at New West about the shovel-ready projects in Montana and Idaho forests, and a plan created by a diverse group of Montanans including The Wilderness Society and Pyramid Mountain Lumber:

Among the activities identified by the Forest Service that would receive the largest amount of money are $10 million for road repair and decommissioning, $30 million for clean-up of abandoned mines, and $10 million to combat noxious weeds.

In Montana, the U.S. Forest Service has identified about $59 million of approved restoration projects. Economic impact analysis suggests that, through multiplier effects, completing these projects would result in $92.4 million in additional sales for Montana businesses, $28 million in wages, $14.3 million in small business income, and $2.3 million in state, county, and community tax revenues. The good news for Montana's growing ranks of unemployed is that these projects are projected to create over 1300 new jobs.

The economic impact of these projects would be felt across every sector of our economy, especially in our state's rural workforce. The biggest benefactors by economic sector would include $24.5 million in forestry and agricultural services, $13.8 million in road work, $9.5 million in environmental and technical consulting, and $5.7 million in the beleaguered logging industry.

These kinds of restoration projects are available throughout the West — projects that could put construction workers, loggers, miners back to work. Montana's politicians and public interest groups have been leading the way in developing a restoration economy. I talked with Gov. Schweitzer about this over a year ago:

Schweitzer: What they did 25 years ago is they demagogued environmentalists and people who were pro-environment as people that are going to take away your logging job and your mining job. Well, as it turned out it wasn't environmentalists who took your job away. It was mechanization and trade policy. My gosh, in Butte we're mining as much ore with 380 as we did with 30,000 people in 1920. It's mechanization. The timber industry's mechanization and it's cheap B.C. wood. But, the Republicans managed to message it that it was environmentalists who took away your job, and it was always a question of the environment or your job, and people had to choose. And people chose, in big numbers, their jobs, and blamed it all on Democrats and on environmentalists.

All right. I don't use those terms. [I say] we're going to be in a position where you can hand Montana off along to your grandkids in as good or better shape as when we found it. Now that doesn't sound like a guy whose going to take away your job. And I'm not. In fact, with our restoration economy in Montana, heck, we're creating jobs like crazy, cleaning up the messes from the past. Making the rivers cleaner, making the fisheries better. Improving the roads that we have in the forests so they don't increase siltation and kill bull trout. All those are jobs. Heck, there's as many or more jobs doing that than there was digging the holes or cutting down the trees in the first place. So it turns out it was all a lie: jobs or the environment. To a large extent, what's driving Montana's economy today is people moving here to live in close proximity to those wildlands.

He and his team, as well as Montana's environmental and timber communities, are working together to blow up that old myth of jobs versus environment. It's a brilliant plan, and one that is desperately needed both to repair damage done not just by the Bush administration but by decades of poor resource management, and at the same time create good-paying, sustainable jobs. These kinds of projects are available all across the nation, but particularly in the West, and that's just on public lands alone.

Consider what could be done in the nation's wildlife refuges. From the Defenders of Wildlife:

Funding shovel-ready projects on wildlife refuges could quickly create green jobs for nearly 20,000 Americans, said Noah Kahn, the refuge program manager for Defenders of Wildlife. These are profitable jobs that can't be shipped overseas. And this investment would also help the Obama administration reduce global warming pollution.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) could put around 20,000 Americans to work in as little as 90 days through restoration projects in national wildlife refuges across the country. A $1 billion investment would create work for people with varying skills, including construction workers, engineers, electricians, biologists, renewable energy specialists, landscapers and unskilled or younger workers eager to learn useful job skills.

These jobs would improve America's water quality and wildlife habitat, eradicate costly non-native invasive species, make aging facilities more energy efficient and develop renewable energy capacity, such as solar, wind and geothermal systems, at refuges across America.

The return on these projects would be huge. Americans already pump $730 billion to our economy in outdoor recreation. That supports 6.5 million jobs or one in 20 American jobs. This is the growth industry for the West, and a way to turn the region into the leader on developing new green technologies and renewable energy sources.

And it's a way to finally end the debate that's stagnated so much of the West's politics and economy. You can have jobs and a healthy, sustainable environment, and the keys to that are in the hand of Congress and President Obama right now in this stimulus package. From a crass political standpoint, if they want to preserve Democratic gains in the West, this is the way to do it. But from the standpoint of a resident of the West, it's just good policy.


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