Western lands management has suffered for 20-plus years from a disastrous move toward consensus decision-making. There is no known way to more effectively purge the "best available science" and broad public access than to move to local control and consensus.
This has not happened by default; it's a right-wing, Republican-driven agenda that envisions essentially privatized decision-making and control of public lands and processes. It has gained immense strength since Ronald Reagan, did not lose any momentum under Bill Clinton, and rose to new heights under George W. Bush.
Dan Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula, Mont., where he oversaw explosive population growth that ate up virtually every inch of land possible, has been mentioned by consensus beneficiaries as possible undersecretary of Agriculture (overseeing the Forest Service). Such an appointment would be a tragic mistake. I see little evidence he understands, appreciates or supports the broad use of ecological science to under-pin decisions about public lands and biological diversity conservation. He would continue to move away from the brilliant visions and legislation born in the middle 1900s and would strengthen the privatization agenda of special-interest users like the timber, grazing and oil and gas industries.
There is a role for public lands in the battle to reverse global climate disruption, but Kemmis and collaboration/consensus decision-making will not fulfill that role. Public lands management has continued not just to drift, but to rush, toward the lowest common denominator. We would not have elected Barack Obama if it had been a consensus-based selection process.
The only effective role public lands can play in the global climate agenda is to dramatically increase and recover the ecological integrity of the landscape. That means removing and reducing industrialization (including logging, even when couched in the name of forest health) and motorization that has fragmented and degraded ecosystems. That is the only means by which more robust wildlife and fish populations can be achieved, which are essential for even a chance of surviving the changes already in the pipeline. This requires breaking the "locals know best" mold that has framed debate about and constrained conservation management on public lands since the 1970s.
Kemmis and, I'm afraid, recently appointed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of Colorado, won't do that.
The continued nonsense about "experimentation" has degraded the regulatory process and the ecological integrity of public lands for the past 30 years. To circumvent the best available science and the interests of all Americans (blue states and red states, east and west, north and south, with and without public lands, etc.) there has been a steady stream of "initiatives" to displace science and regulatory and democratic public process.
Framed as innovation, experimentation, collaboration, partnerships, consensus and other "broken wing" strategies, all have led away from the tried and true measures of land and wildlife conservation: roadless lands, low road densities, very limited industrialization and very limited motorization. Salazar and Kemmis can't and won't deal with these issues in the necessary and constructive manner.
This is not a time for more of the same, even dressed in the language of experimentation. This is a time for sound science and preferably a science-trained leader at Interior; it is time for a strong public regulatory process, full and open access to that process, and de-emphasizing local control of the land still owned by all Americans.
Kemmis and Salazar can't handle that agenda. Public lands, and all that they encompass, desperately need to be reclaimed and re-established. Such a transition will not be smooth; special interests must lose privileges they have never earned.
Now is the time for a resurgence of democracy and science if Americans are to form the foundation of public lands conservation and management. It is true that change can happen, but so far, I see only a dimming of the horizons.
Dr. Brian Horejsi, a Canadian wildlife scientist, spends two weeks every fall and spring at Yellowstone National Park and is an advocate for conservation issues and activist groups. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.