Will the stimulus herald a new era of Western restoration?

Melding the intermountain West’s newfound political muscle with the region’s abundant natural resources could kick-start a very potent economic engine to create green jobs via the federal stimulus package, writes Joan McCarter at New West.

Of course, it doesn’t come without some serious roll-up-your-sleeves, post-Bush political rehab.

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, was 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 the tying up “progress” in the courts. And it will all be the Democrats’ fault, because when it comes to a jobs versus environment fight, it’s always the Democrats’ 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.

McCarter goes on to explain an innovative economic development partnership from a coalition of groups including The Wilderness Society and a Montana lumber mill to create thousands of local jobs restoring 13 national forests.

Colorado, are you listening?

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Wendy Norris

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