OVANDO – The Obama administration launched a nationwide listening tour Tuesday with a firm message that its new conservation agenda for rural places will be driven by local ideas, not some agenda from Washington, D.C.
Representatives from several federal agencies and the White House used the first public session of “America’s Great Outdoors Initiative” to highlight a collaboration of ranchers, timber companies and environmentalists in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Montana is a state, like many in the West, where federal land management and conservation are often hotly debated and can lead to lengthy stalemates.
“The first message, clearly, is that this effort must be bottom up,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Far be it from me, from Iowa or Washington, D.C., or wherever I come from, to suggest I know better.”
Vilsack said in an interview that President Barack Obama expects that the multi-agency listening sessions around the country will result in a report delivered to him by November. The next event will be in Los Angeles in the coming weeks, following sessions Wednesday in Missoula, Bozeman and Helena.
Watershed preservation efforts from the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay will also be covered, Vilsack said. The goal is to include everything from recreation to economic development, particularly for rural areas where incomes languish compared to most urban areas.
In Montana, the administration officials were joined by the state’s governor and U.S. senators and highlighted a decade-long conservation effort around The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and Glacier National Park.
It has focused on voluntary land sales from a large timber company and conservation agreements with ranchers and land owners to allow for some logging and biomass energy production aimed at improving the area economy, while also enhancing wildlife habitat.
Representatives of the effort want to use the $1 billion a year generated by offshore oil and gas leases for conservation.
But Vilsack said any final plans that come out of the initiative will have to be creative with reallocation, or better use of, current funds.
Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, were integral in persuading the administration to launch the project looking at local partnerships.
Tester, who has been pitching his own collaboration that aims to increase both logging and wilderness areas in other parts of Montana, said the contentious land battles of the past can’t be the story.
“There are folks out there that just love to see people fight, but the fact of the matter here is we don’t win by fighting,” Tester said.
Locals said federal agencies can play a big role in the success of such efforts — but they can also hurt when plans from big cities are applied to distant wildlands.
“Urban-based conservation movements have really only succeeded in alienating the very best allies: our ranchers, our loggers, our sportsmen and our farmers,” said Melanie Parker, who lives in the scenic Swan Valley and has played an integral role in getting loggers and environmentalists in the area to talk with one another.
The administration’s new initiative comes as Republicans and others criticize the contents of an internal Interior Department memo and other records that show the administration was considering the potential for presidential monument declarations in nine western states. Those declarations, last done in Montana under former President Bill Clinton, remain a very sore point for some westerners.
Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg said he thinks bad publicity led to the public meetings.
“I think they got caught,” Rehberg said. “I think they are sensitive to the charge that they have not been transparent.”
Leading Democrats said the monument declarations are not part of the agenda.
“I am opposed to the administration creating monuments,” said Baucus, who holds an influential role in the Senate. “This is bottom up, that was top down.”
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