Forget the parlor game about who President Barack Obama will pick as his Interior Secretary or other posts that have dramatic impacts on Idaho, like the Department of Energy.
Who he picks, while important, is not as critical as his agenda for the region beyond the 100th Meridian. During his first term Obama was largely conciliatory with western leaders.
His Interior Secretary Ken Salazar did not shove any major initiatives down the throat of western states. Western Republicans like Idaho Gov. Butch Otter protested loudly Salazar’s “wild lands” policy, which was aimed at managing roadless areas controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
But Obama didn’t fight back when Congress put a hold on it because he wasn’t looking for a fight. Salazar aggressively pushed delisting of wolves from day one and did not oppose the bill that delisted them legislatively backed by Montana Sen. Jon Tester.
Without that bill, Tester would have lost to Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. Tester’s election was more important politically to Obama than pleasing wildlife advocates.
That won’t change in the second term. For the first time Democrats appear to have a chance to make major gains across the West.
“They’re not going to do something to make a Jon Tester or a Harry Reid go crazy,” said Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Rick Johnson, who is in Washington for Obama’s inauguration.
Climate change will remain the major environmental issue on Obama’s plate. That means he will continue to push for renewable energy and efficiency programs while his Environmental Protection Agency places more pressure on utilities to replace dirty coal plants with natural gas or Green power.
There is clearly some partisan divide over the issue of combating climate change. But adapting to climate change, which few people deny is happening, is and should be bipartisan, said Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood.
“There is no constituency for erosion,” Wood said.
This won’t mean appropriating new money, but simply reprogramming the conservation money Interior and the Department of Agriculture are already spending, Wood said. It should mean high-paying jobs in rural communities cutting and thinning forests, closing abandoned roads and working on similar projects in deserts, plains and other federal lands.
“It’s almost irresponsible as a country we haven’t realized our communities need us to define ways to make them more resilient to the fires and the floods that threaten them,” Wood said.
The harder issue ahead for farmers, hunters and other westerners is private lands. Since 1985 farm bills have included billions of dollars for conservation programs like the conservation reserve program that paid farmers to rest their lands in grass instead of grow crops.
Up to 42 million acres of private land has been turned into habitat for ducks, upland birds and many other species of wildlife but that could be coming to an end because of major changes in government and the farm economy.
“This perfect storm of collapsing budgets and extraordinary commodity prices is destroying 30 years of conservation programs,” said Tom France, National Wildlife Federation regional director in Missoula, Mont.
It will take creative thinking to keep much of southern Idaho’s lush dryland farm country from turning into dirt, France said.
There will still be issues like sage grouse listing, power lines, salmon and grizzly bears.
These aren’t War on the West issues.