Grazin' Hell

Bush put former industry lobbyists in charge of public lands. Now a deal with a Wyoming rancher has the stewards running for cover.

Environmental groups appalled by the settlement believe the IG's report was entirely too kind to Myers and other senior DOI officials. "They centered on small fry, middle managers, and let the principals skate," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an advocacy group for federal whistleblowers that had requested the internal investigation of the Robbins matter. "This deal was green-lighted at the highest levels."

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, which filed a lawsuit challenging the settlement, agrees. "I have no doubt that Bill Myers was perfectly aware of what was going on and may have directed what was going on," he says. "Myers is one of the preeminent apologists for public-lands ranching, and the Robbins settlement is the quintessential example of that point of view in action -- where, because someone is rich and connected, they get treatment that nobody else ever got."

Robbins and his attorney also dispute the report's findings, saying they give a false picture of what went on in the negotiations, unfairly depict Comer as some kind of rogue agent, and ignore the substantial history of "wrongdoing" on the part of the government that led to the settlement. The deal was voided last year after alleged breaches of the terms by Robbins, but Robbins charges that the BLM caved to pressure from environmentalists -- and the BLM now faces additional lawsuits filed by his attorney in Cheyenne.

Robert Comer
Robert Comer
Cut 'em out, ride 'em in: Senior Department of the 
Interior officials under Gale Norton stepped in to 
resolve a dispute with a Wyoming rancher.
Cut 'em out, ride 'em in: Senior Department of the Interior officials under Gale Norton stepped in to resolve a dispute with a Wyoming rancher.

"It's a crucifixion, what's been taking place," the rancher says. "They have put me completely out of business now. The damages are huge. I'm talking about millions and millions of dollars. They had no reason to break that settlement agreement."

The report's scathing attack on Robert Comer seems to have satisfied no one. (It probably didn't satisfy Comer, either; he declined to be interviewed, saying that he was not authorized by the DOI to comment on the IG's findings.) But whether Comer was straying off the reservation or doing exactly what senior officials wanted, the misfired Robbins deal provides a rare glimpse into the inner sanctum of Norton's Department of the Interior. The strange saga of Robert Comer and his know-nothing bosses answers more than a few questions and leaves a big one on the table:

Just who are these guys working for, anyway?

Transfixed by the demons of Iraq, terrorism and the economy, the national media has paid little attention to the Bush administration's record on the environment. That's just the way the administration likes it: Major policy shifts involving the opening of formerly pristine areas to energy exploration or the weakening of pollution laws tend to be announced late on Friday afternoons or right before major holidays, when they attract as little coverage as possible.

Not since the days of James Watt, Ronald Reagan's famously combative Secretary of the Interior, have so many industry foxes been appointed as stewards of the federal henhouse. But Secretary Norton, who long ago served as lead attorney for Watt's Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver before becoming Colorado's attorney general, has advantages that her mentor did not, including a much more compliant Congress. With lawmakers' help, she's managed to open up public lands to development interests on a scale that Watt could never have hoped for.

In the Norton era, the staunch political opposition to drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a freeze-out that lasted 25 years, melts away in a matter of weeks. That's great news, the secretary proclaims -- even though the decision will have no effect on today's soaring gas prices, since commercial production is still at least a decade away and there's no guarantee that the oil companies will sell their spoils in this country, anyway.

In the Norton era, decades of federal protection for wild mustangs get wiped out by an obscure provision in a 3,000-page spending bill that effectively turns thousands of the animals into horseburgers. Now wild horses and burros that are more than ten years old or have struck out on three adoption attempts can be sold "without limitation" to the highest bidder at auction; those bidders are generally dealers representing one of three foreign-owned slaughterhouses in the U.S. that prepare horsemeat for human consumption abroad. It's a win-win deal for everybody but the horses: Grazing interests get thinner herds of the pesky ponies to compete with, and Belgians get a slice of the American West on their breakfast table.

In the Norton era, buzzwords such as "consultation" and "cooperation" mask a top-down approach to partnering with industry, and even seemingly innocuous references to a "cleaner" and "healthier" environment conceal Orwellian doublespeak. Thus, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act gives a giant boost to commercial logging in national forests, all in the name of fighting wildfires. The Clear Skies Initiative vows to reduce smokestack emissions but actually allows twice as much crud in the air as Bill Clinton's plan.

Major policy moves that open up public lands to commercial use are supposed to be based in sound science, not politics. But in the Norton era, staff scientists find that their non-partisan research -- on, say, how many off-road vehicles it takes to squash the desert tortoise population, or the true extent of the Florida panther habitat -- is routinely ignored.

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