Environmentalists remember the late 1970s and 1980s as the heyday of the Endangered Species Act. Two critters, nearly impossible to find in their native habitats, were stars of the nightly news: The snail darter, a four-inch-long fish whose endangered status delayed and nearly destroyed the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plans to build the giant Tellico Dam; and the northern spotted owl, whose nests in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest brought the logging industry to its knees. The two also became icons for a backlash against environmental regulation. Loggers whose work and livelihood were stalled by an endangered bird made half-serious references to publishing a  “Spotted Owl Cookbook.” When Bruce Babbitt took over as the Clinton administration’s Interior Secretary, he pronounced the loggers-versus-birds conflict a “train wreck,” and its political scars can be seen to this day.

That was then, this is now: The Obama administration’s agenda for “change” promises what’s arguably the most dramatic policy switch in the history of green politics. From a Bush administration that ratcheted down environmental regulation and law enforcement, Obama’s top-level environment and energy appointments are poised to take things in the opposite direction. Add in the backdrop of a shuddering economy, and the notion of “change” becomes quite a bit more dicey.

In simpler terms: What’s Barack Obama’s spotted owl equivalent? To some veteran adversaries of environmental groups, the next spotted owl is large, white, glowering, and can weigh nearly a ton: The polar bear. In 2007, the Bush administration listed the bears as “threatened” as a result of the continued decline of Arctic sea ice. If, as scientists believe, global warming is endangering polar bears, the U.S. Endangered Species Act could trigger major impacts in the 49 states where polar bears have never planted a paw. Saving the polar bear in Alaska might hit home with miners in West Virginia, oil and gas crews in Texas, and ranchers of methane-producing livestock from coast to coast.

Chuck Cushman knows a thing or two about spotted owls. A former “inholder” -- a private landowner surrounded by Federally-managed land -- in Yosemite National Park, Cushman has spent three decades fighting what he sees as excessive federal control of land, particularly in the West. He sees “enormous regulatory implications that would be necessary to deal with the polar bear on climate change” throughout the mining and energy industries that dominate large portions of the western U.S., and beyond. “This is nationwide,” he says. “They’re going to try to impose regulations in the lower 48 in order to save the polar bear in Alaska. It’s going to affect lots of different industries. It’s going to be Clinton/Babbitt redux.”

Bruce Babbitt, you see, was Chuck Cushman’s arch-nemesis for eight years. Babbitt struggled to reconcile environmentalists and western industry over species, forestry, mining, and water issues, with at best partial success. His stature as the son of a generations-old Western ranching family didn’t turn out to be a big selling point with land-rights activists like Cushman.

And that may not be a good sign for the incoming Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar. Like Babbitt, his family has ranched in the West for decades, and presumably has a sensitivity to Western issues not always found among the tinhorns in the nation’s capital. While Salazar’s choice has evoked praise from the National Mining Association and Bush’s Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, Chuck Cushman sees an old pattern here, and doesn’t like it one bit: “You take a guy with a land-use control mentality, give him a few cows and put a big hat on him, and sell him as a conciliator,” he says. If confirmed, Salazar would oversee public lands, national parks, wildlife refuges, and protect imperiled species like the polar bear. Somewhere along the way, he’s likely to incur the wrath of his fellow ranchers, the mining and energy industries, and Chuck Cushman.

Cushman says his American Land Rights Association hasn’t yet heard an SOS sounded by western ranchers, drillers, and miners, and landholders, but he’s convinced that a backlash is in the works. “It’s not looking good for the people that I protect,” he says. “I like Barack Obama, but there are going to be cases where we’re going to fight him.”

Chuck Cushman has mellowed a bit since the days when environmentalists saddled him with the nickname “Rent-a-Riot” -- a backhanded tribute to Cushman’s skill at inspiring revolt against environmental laws. But as a new administration vows to tackle climate change, with potentially far-reaching consequences, Chuck’s business may be one of the healthier ones in 2009.


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)

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Political Habitat: An eco and opposite reaction
Will Obama’s green cabinet give birth to the next spotted owl?