The "war on the West" has ended. The regions Democratic governors have been offered almost unconditional surrender by the Carter administration made it clear during a week-long trip through the area last week by Vice President Walter Mondale that it has backed away from nearly every position which last year created hostility and resentment in the West.
The depth of that resentment is shown by the popularity of the battle image and by the fact that there were still plenty of disbelievers Friday at a meeting of Western governors in which Mondale and Cabinet Secretaries Bob Bergland of Agriculture and Cecil Andres of Interior summarised the results of Mondale's truce-making swing through seven Western states. During those five days the Carter emissaries retreated on almost every issue that has caused friction, between the region's political leaders and the national administration.
On water, the lifeblood of the West, Mondale promised repeatedly that a pending national water policy study would not make recommendations interfering with state or private water rights. The promise was so sweeping that it could cause problems for the administration if any of the provisions of the final proposal are regarded in the West as indirectly pre-empting states' rights.
On the 160-acre limitation for federally watered land, Andrus steadily retreated from proposed regulations that would enforce the law 1902 reclamation more strictly than ever before. By week's end the Interior secretary was speaking favorably of a proposal by California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. that would allow as family farmer to irrigate as much as 1,280 acres with federal water.
On grazing from grazing fees, Bergland expressed sympathy for extending for a third year a moratorium on any fee increases on federal lands. Cattlemen have suffered a record three year loss because of the Western drought and any they can't afford higher grazing fees.
Timber company executive were assured that a pending study on roadless forest lands will be completed by the end of 1978. Company officials complained that operations were being unduly restricted because 67 million acres of forest, have been set aside until the supply is completed. Some will ultimately become wilderness and some wilnchronization with majority Western interests. And evendian claims to scaree natural resources did Mondale, a longtime supporter of Indian rights, appear to be out of synchronization with majority Western interests. And even on this issue, the recognition of state primacy to water rights would be detrimental to Indian claims.
The Carter administration's attempt to transform its image from that of a foe of the West to sympathetic friend was accomplished with skill and style by Mondale whose relaxed good-humored manner went over well with Western audiences. Indeclaring the cease-fire between the national administration and a region of the country swept by Gerald Ford in the 1976 election, Mondale even tried to suggest there had been no real conflict in the first place.
"I think the Republicans have done an an artful job on us," Mondale said during a half-hour interview aboard Air Force Two. "The war on the West is just bunk."
As Mondale analyed it, the "war on the West" idea took root with the ill-timed announcement of the Carter administration "hit list" on federal water projects, which coincided with the water drought in Western history. An original announcement that 320 congressionally approved projects were being reviewed to see if they would receive federal funding caused widespread fear in the region.
Ultimately, the administration compromised with Congress and halted only nine projects, eight of them in the West. There even was some talk on Mondale's Western trip that funding for one or two of these projects may be restored.
It was the attitude of the Carter administration on water issues as well as its actions that caused dismay.
Last summer, for instance, White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan startled Democrats on a visit to San Francisco by saying, "Back East water is just another word and in Georgia a dam is a bon doggle." Statements such as these made it appear that the administration knew nothing about Western problems and cared even less.
"We really screwed up on the way we handled the water projects," Andrus said in an interview last week. The interior secretary was also self-critical of the way in which the proposed 160-acre regulations were announced though not of his oft-proclaimed intention to enforce the law.
Politically, the original Western offensive may have been less damaging to the Democrats than is generally supposed. Embattled Democratic governor such as Colorado's Richard Laman actually improved their home state standing by vigorously opposing the Carter initiatives. Now that Western views appear to have carried the day, incumbent governors who face reelections this year, are claiming political credit.
But there is another sense, deeper than politics, in which more damage may have been done.
Mondale reflected on Western mistrust last week, pointing out that Western states often vote Republican in presidential elections and acknowledgeing that it may be difficult for Carter to carry very many of them in 1980. Nonetheless, said the Vice President, the trust of Western voters is important to the Carter administration.
"As an emotional thing, the President and I want their trust," Mondale said. "In other words, we think that's a very important part of leadership whether they end up voting for us or not. And it's just not a healthy thing for people to feel that their leadership is unmindful and unconcerned and disrespectful. It happens to be that we're not."
Which is why the Cict President, along with the Democratic Western governors, hope they never hear the "war on the West" phrase again. As a governor's aide put it last week: "What we'd like to hear are some assurances that all will remains quiet on the Western front."