Easterners disconnected from Western realities
January 3, 2006 - There's obviously something liberating about leaving a government job.
On the inside, one must tread carefully, mincing one's words into a politically correct mush. Once outside, one can speak more honestly, without fear of courting controversy or landing in political hot water.
That's why the recent comments made by outgoing Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Rebecca Watson, who is taking a job with a Denver law firm after four years at the Department of Interior, were so interesting to read. She's saying now what she might have been reluctant to say while in government. And what she's saying is important.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Watson said she believes “the urbanization of America has helped polarize beliefs about the environment, leaving many city dwellers with romanticized and often unrealistic views about wildlife and natural resources in the West.” During her years at the department, Watson encountered many Easterners who she says have “false perspectives” about public lands conflicts in this part of the country. And that understanding gap is a problem.
“If you are an urbanite and don't have any familiarity or have not been out in the West or read about issues and gained a deeper understanding about natural resources and the West, you might have some ideas about it that don't hold up to reality,” Watson said. Many Americans “have a Disneyland view of animals,” especially bears and wolves. But “folks who live in the West and deal with wildlife on their own terms perhaps have a more realistic perspective than folks who don't have that opportunity. I think as America has become more urbanized, some of these issues have become more polarized.”
Watson is putting her finger on a serious problem: the growing disconnect between urban dwellers and rural people, between Easterners and Westerners, on environmental and public lands issues. Were the federal government not in a position to dictate such policies from thousands of miles away, and were state and local governments given a greater say in federal land policies, this understanding gap wouldn't matter much.
But until that balance of power shifts westward - and states in the region demand a true partnership with Washington - urbanites and Easterners will continue to impose their ideas of environmental virtue on Westerners.
It's easy for Easterners like West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall to raise a fuss about how the Bureau of Land Management is handling wild horses, for instance, drawing kudos from the animal rights crowd, without fear that his constituents will suffer the consequences when horse herds grow out of control. It's easy for Easterners to propose or impose new national monuments or wilderness areas on Western states, oblivious to what that means for Westerners living in these areas. It's easy for Easterners to be hostile to reforming the Endangered Species Act, or indifferent to federal efforts to thin dangerously fire-prone national forests, because the failure to act on either item falls disproportionately hard on Westerners.
But there are other understanding gaps identified by Watson during her tenure in Washington. She says she was surprised to learn “how little Americans understand about energy and its importance to the country.” Here, too, Americans seem disconnected from reality. “I think somehow Americans think there is a silver bullet - that there is energy out there that doesn't look bad, doesn't smell bad, doesn't pollute, is very reliable and is cheap,” she said. “Many people in urban areas no longer make a connection to where energy comes from. They think energy comes from the wall and food comes from the store,” Watson said. “They don't understand the trade-offs involved in energy.”
Again, Watson identifies a significant cultural problem in contemporary America. And while more of this kind of candor from Watson's former colleagues still on the inside would be appreciated, given the fact that the truth often hurts - one's political career especially - its understandable why they might stay mum.