There’s a lot of backward movement on the environment in Congress these days. EPA is under assault for trying to regulate greenhouse gases. The Interior Department’s efforts to protect some wildlands are also being attacked.
But why should Congress have all the fun? Here in the Rocky Mountain West, the 2012 elections also brought some backsliding.
New Mexico has seen perhaps the most dramatic reversal. Bill Richardson, who retired in 2012, was a vigorous force for conservation. Most memorably, he fought the Bush Administration’s decision to drill and fragment Otero Mesa, one of the last intact areas of desert grassland in the US. Earthjustice, The Wilderness Society, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and others joined him in that fight. And, with Richardson leading the charge, we won, sending the Bush decision back to the drawing board, where it remains to this day.
Richardson was replaced in 2011 by Susana Martinez, who promptly moved in the opposite direction.
Martinez tried a maneuver to gut Richardson-era climate change regulations, only to have her move struck down by the New Mexico Supreme court.
And Martinez nominated Harrison Schmitt to be her Energy, Minerals and Natural resources department head. Schmitt’s two biggest claims to fame are that he’s been to the moon, and he thinks environmentalists are “communists.” Schmitt eventually withdrew, but not apparently because of his contempt for environmental protection.
So much for the Land of Enchantment.
In Colorado, recently retired Gov. Bill Ritter had a solid environmental record, pushing at every turn for a “New Energy Economy” focused on wind and solar power. He also spent political capital achieving modest improvement of the state’s oil and gas regulations, much to the consternation of that pampered industry.
The views of John Hickenlooper, Ritter’s 2011 replacement as governor, are more of a mystery. Hick has tried to kiss and make up with the oil lobby. He was famously quoted in the New York Times saying: “I think we should drill the living daylights out of natural gas and cut regulation.”
And he promised local development interests that he’d look into reversing Gov. Ritter’s recommendation to keep Vermillion Basin off-limits to drilling. Vermillion is an 80,000-acre wilderness of spectacular badlands and archeological sites in the remote northwest of Colorado, an area conservation groups have long sought to protect.
Gov. Hickenlooper is probably more Bill Richardson than Susana Martinez. But his deeds will need to be better than the words he’s spoken to date.