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In West, Conservatives Emphasize the 'Conserve'

"Folks don't want a whole lot of government," said Democratic Sen.-elect Jon Tester, a Montana farmer. "But they want things like clean water." (By Justin Sullivan -- Getty Images)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006

SEATTLE -- Nearly a decade ago, historian Patricia Nelson Limerick set the modern American West to verse:

The West has been lucky, it's true.

It did not grow old -- it grew new.

As it grew older, it got fresher and bolder.

Don't you wish it could happen to you?

Limerick and others said in the 1990s that the New West was shedding its slavish reliance on mining, logging, ranching and dams. They prophesied that it would become a region where the economy, politics and popular culture were dominated by urban people who went outdoors not to chop down trees, punch cows or pour concrete but to recreate, appreciate and preserve.

That prophecy proved premature. Working-class indignation exploded in the Interior West against environmentalists, Democrats and outside agitators, stalling efforts by the Clinton administration to rewrite grazing, mining and forestry laws. Republicans shrewdly harnessed the populist anger and consolidated political control, and in 2000 they began an aggressive push for oil, gas and mineral extraction on public land.

Last month's elections, though, may signal the end of Republican dominance and fierce resistance to many conservation measures. Profound demographic and economic change seems finally to be asserting itself across the region. Westerners cast votes suggesting that the protection of their natural surroundings is not a negotiable condition for living well.

"Self-interest has intersected with reality," said Limerick, chair of the board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "To have open spaces and nice places, people realize, they cannot be a bunch of individuals pursuing self-indulgence. They have to act collectively."

To that end, much of the West rejected ballot measures that could have shredded state and local land-use rules limiting growth, controlling sprawl and ensuring open space. Voters in Idaho, Washington and California soundly defeated "takings" measures, intended to compensate individual owners whose land is devalued by land-use or zoning laws. Arizona voters approved their law. Courts had earlier tossed out the measures in Montana and Nevada.

At the same time, Democrats consolidated gains from 2004, picking up the governorship in Colorado, a Senate seat in Montana and two House seats in Arizona. Democrats already controlled governor's seats in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

Perhaps more significant, Democratic and Republican politicians from New Mexico to Montana have found common ground with hunters and anglers in opposing widespread energy development on wild public lands, halting drilling in several areas where the public felt that wildlife and scenic values trumped economic consideration. In the past year, bipartisan grass-roots opposition has also killed off a number of proposals to sell federal land and use the revenue to pay for governmental operations.


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