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Washington's New War on the West

The economic track record of the current administration and Congress is not a good one. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at nearly 10 percent, and many believe federal missteps prolonged the recession and are weakening the recovery. While things like ill-advised spending, Obamacare, and looming tax hikes are doing damage nationwide, a number of other federal measures have particularly burdened the American West, the region suffering with the highest unemployment rate in the country. The Senate and House Western Caucuses’ recent study, "The War on Western Jobs," documents the host of environmental policies that have targeted the sectors crucial to the economies of Western states -- especially energy production but also mining, logging, farming, and ranching. It is important to note that the federal government controls the economic fate of western states to a greater extent than any other part of the country. The lands comprising 12 western states (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska) are nearly half owned by the federal government. More so than other regions, job losses in the West can be traced to federal policies. The Obama administration’s attack on Western energy jobs began within weeks of taking power when the Department of the Interior revoked 77 oil and gas leases in Utah and halted new oil shale projects in Colorado. By the end of 2009, the administration had issued fewer onshore energy leases than in any year under Bush or Clinton, and the pace thus far in 2010 is no better. Throughout the West, vast energy-containing federal lands are currently off-limits, and the administration and Congress have sought to restrict access to millions of additional acres. Even where energy leasing is not explicitly prohibited, Obama’s regulators have imposed red tape and bureaucratic delays that have substantially limited it. Beyond oil and gas, the administration has all but declared war on coal mining, which is particularly vital to Wyoming and Montana. The Environmental Protection Agency’s global warming regulations as well as many other anti-coal measures (including Boiler MACT, combustion byproducts, new National Ambient Air Quality Standards, others) bode ill for the future of western coal. The threat of new energy taxes has only added to the chilling effect on Western investment in energy projects. In addition to the impact on energy production, the federal government’s excessive ownership of land -- as well as intrusive measures like the Endangered Species Act that target private property -- is posing growing problems for other industries. Despite the West’s mineral wealth, mining jobs continue to decline. The same is true of logging. Farmers and ranchers also face a host of costly hurdles. Instead of providing regulatory relief that could turn the region's economy around, Congress has proposed new constraints like the sweeping Clean Water Restoration Act. This bill would essentially federalize land-use decisions on any property containing wetlands, and compounds the threat by defining wetlands so expansively so as to include almost everywhere. And the Obama Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture's Forest Service have issued new agency guidance for federal lands, which under the name of addressing global warming would further restrict access. Granted, Washington’s control over western lands and the misuse of that control to curtail economic activity is not a new phenomenon, but the current administration and Congress have taken it to a new level. The West's economic pain has not been justified by environmental gain. Quite the contrary, Uncle Sam turns out to be a lousy landlord. For example, the forest fires that have become common in Western lands in recent years have mostly originated on federal lands, and not on privately-held forests which tend to be better managed against such risks. A less-intrusive federal approach could deliver both economic and environmental benefits. The next Congress should have a long list of reforms on its agenda. The Western Caucuses’ report spells out what needs to be addressed to get the American West back on the path to prosperity.