Land war in the West heats up

Faced with their constituents’ soaring unemployment and growing frustration over Washington’s suppression of their region’s once-thriving natural resources industry, members of the Congressional Western Caucus have issued a blistering report excoriating the Obama administration’s policies towards the West.

The 25-page report, “The War on Western Jobs,” was released on Sept. 30 and bears the names of the caucus’s co-chairmen: Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah). “This administration’s anti-business, anti-multiple use agenda threatens western communities,” the report says. “It is killing jobs and undermining state and local budgets.”

“Washington’s misguided policies,” the report points out, are restricting “access to America’s vast reserves of affordable oil and natural gas” and are placing senseless burdens on the region’s agricultural, timber, and mining industries. The results, the report notes, have been devastating for the region’s economy:

“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the West reported the highest regional jobless rate in August, at 10.8 percent. The western region has maintained the highest regional unemployment for the past year. At the same time, six of the top twelve states with the largest decline in the employment-to-population ratio since the recession began in 2007 are western states. According to the Associated Press Economic Stress Index, 3 of the top 5 states showing the most stress in June were western states: Nevada, California, and Arizona.”    

In February, it was revealed through a leaked document that the Obama administration was considering creating or expanding 14 sites for monument designation in the West. This fueled speculation that the administration would use the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate, without congressional approval, vast new wilderness areas that would be off limits to any form of economic development. Among other things, the document revealed that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) considered up to 140 million acres of land – nearly half of the 264 million acres in manages – as “treasured lands” that could be eligible for conservation restrictions. (Land Letter, Aug. 12, 2010)

Meanwhile, Uintah County in northeastern Utah is suing the Interior Department, alleging that the federal government is illegally withholding federal lands in the county from oil and gas exploration. At issue are 385,000 acres of land thought to contain substantial amounts of oil and natural gas. The land is within the boundary of the proposed wilderness area that has never been approved by Congress. The “America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act” has been introduced in Congress several times but has never passed either house. It has been bitterly opposed by lawmakers from the region where the wilderness area would be located, precisely because it would lock up area’s valuable natural resources in perpetuity. 

Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee told Land Letter (Oct. 7, 2010) that obtaining access to the area’s oil and gas reserves is a matter of survival for his county.  “The Red Rock wilderness proposal has never passed Congress,” he said. “Yet it has been inserted into BLM management documents, contrary to law. And those areas in the Red Rock are being held up, and energy development is not being allowed to happen. That’s wrong.”

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.