Guest Opinions

Podium: A bipartisan approach to public lands

Sen. Mike Crapo’s decision to vote in favor of a public lands divestiture amendment to the 2015 budget resolution has created a stir in Idaho, especially among conservationists who have often worked with Crapo on collaborative solutions to public land issues. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was approved on March 26 on a 51-49 vote. Three Republicans joined the solid Democratic and Independent minority in opposing the amendment. If Crapo or any other Republican had also joined them, the amendment would have failed. That math has intensified the scrutiny of Crapo’s vote.

Both Murkowski and Crapo have pointed out that the amendment does not itself transfer any public land to the states or to anyone else. A nonbinding amendment to a nonbinding budget resolution, it is almost entirely symbolic in its effect. The question is whether this episode creates an opportunity for any creative new solutions in the public land arena.

I don’t believe the Murkowski amendment itself presents such an opportunity. While Crapo has argued that the new language has the potential to further the cause of collaboration, it was neither offered nor passed in that spirit. In fact, the amendment appears to be just one more round in the endless saga of the Sagebrush Rebellion, which only serves to deepen the region’s ideological divisions. This approach has never gone anywhere, and the chances are it never will.

That kind of fruitless deepening of ideological antagonism is, of course, exactly the opposite of what Crapo has so masterfully encouraged through his backing of creative problem-solving efforts such as the Owyhee Public Land Management Act or the ongoing Clearwater Basin Collaborative. No one in the country has been more dogged or indeed more successful in nurturing cross-ideological solutions to tough public land issues than Mike Crapo. No one is better positioned to help take that pragmatic approach to scale within the public lands system.

Almost by definition, any congressionally sanctioned framework for supporting collaborative approaches to public land issues must itself be the result of collaboration. That means, at a minimum, that (unlike the Murkowski amendment) it must be genuinely bipartisan from its genesis through its shaping to its enactment. During the debt and deficit crisis of the Great Recession, Crapo was one of a handful of senators willing to work in a truly bipartisan way to seek solutions. If Congress is to have any positive and lasting influence on our public land system, that same kind of courageous and creative bipartisanship will have to be in play.

A bipartisan search for solutions wouldn’t necessarily have to start from scratch. This might be a good time to dust off and spruce up a proposal that began to attract some attention in the public lands West a few years ago, before the current era of gridlock and dysfunction froze almost all creative public policy initiatives. The idea came to be known as Region Seven.

As proposed, Region Seven would facilitate problem-solving experimentation and collaboration on national forest lands. Because of past regional consolidation, there has not been a Region Seven in the national forest system since 1965. This new virtual region would house experimental projects on national forest lands, testing new, innovative approaches to forest management at scales from small watersheds to large landscapes, focusing on collaborative governance structures and other mechanisms with the potential to overcome some of the entrenched problems afflicting the current public land governance system. Such an experimental approach would not attempt to change the entire national forest system but would recognize problems, and invite and test innovative solutions in a few carefully chosen settings.

An approach like this would build off the hard-won successes of grass-roots collaborative efforts such as the Owyhee and provide a framework that could encourage and support similar efforts across the country. A truly bipartisan effort to create such a framework would probably produce something very different from the Region Seven proposal. What matters most is that, like any collaboration, it would be the work of many minds, and for that very reason would have a chance of making a lasting difference.

Daniel Kemmis is the author of “Community and the Politics of Place” and “This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West.” He served as speaker of the Montana House and as mayor of Missoula.