Monumental folly in the West

Published April 1, 2001

On January 18, 2001, while Congress considered the confirmation of Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior, President Clinton announced the unilateral creation of six new national monuments in western states.

“Without their agreement or concern for their welfare, the President rammed new executive actions down the throats of western states,” says Robert H. Nelson, senior fellow in environmental studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Clinton’s mid-January action represented only the latest example of what some have termed the former President’s “war on the west.” During its two terms, the Clinton-Gore administration had created numerous other national monuments in much the same way, bypassing the wishes of Congress, the states, and counties. More than 2,400 state legislators across the nation have denounced Clinton’s designation of the monuments.

Political analysts, calling the November election “a complete repudiation of the environmental policies of the Clinton administration” by rural westerners, pointed out that Al Gore received just 26 percent of the vote in Utah; 28 percent in Alaska, Idaho, and Wyoming; and 33 percent in Montana.

The new monument designations followed closely on the heels of another unilateral action by then-President Clinton: the setting-aside, on January 5, of 58 million acres of new roadless areas within the National Forest system. That action increased the total acreage of National Forests designated wilderness by fully 160 percent. More than half the National Forest system in the United States is now off-limits to the very people who live there. Without access, noted Nelson, there is no hiking, camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, and bird watching, and no oil or gas drilling at a time when the country faces an energy shortage.

According to Nelson, “setting aside this vast area of forest will, ironically, also be bad for the forest environment. After a century of fire suppression, many western forests, including many in western roadless areas, are a torch ready to blow. When the fires of 2000 are repeated, there soon will be more environmental damage all around, the oldest trees destroyed, runoff of sediment, ‘sterilization’ of forest soils, and air pollution hanging over much of the west.”

Nelson’s pessimism has, however, been tempered by Gale Norton’s appointment. Her confirmation, he says, opens the West to rational decision-making, rather than, literally, management by putting out fires. “Opponents of Gale Norton are so upset,” Nelson says, “because her confirmation will put greater control over the uses of western lands into western hands.”

For more information . . .

see A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service, written by Dr. Robert H. Nelson, released in 2000 by Rowman & Littlefield, and available at Or visit the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Web site at CEI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy group founded in 1984 and dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government. Its associate director of media relations, Richard Morrison, can be contacted by email at [email protected], or by phone at 202/331-1010, ext. 266.