Committee tackles the "evolving West" with few Westerners

When the House Natural Resources Committee assembles today to discuss “The Evolving West,” there won’t be many Democratic members from the fast-evolving Rocky Mountain West there to hear it.

Only two serve on the committee.

Under Democratic leadership, the committee that sets policy for the public lands and energy of the West has changed from a bastion of pro-industry, conservative Westerners to a committee dominated by Pacific Coast lawmakers and Easterners.

The transformation comes as Democratic political leaders look at Rocky Mountain states as the most fertile territory to pick up seats and electoral votes in 2008. That’s why they’ve scheduled an early primary in Nevada and are holding their convention in Denver.

Republicans warn that Democrats could lose their momentum in the West if they don’t heed rural, Western concerns about the difficulties imposed by environmental restrictions.

“If there’s sensitivity to that, they may do well,” said Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), chairman of the House Western Caucus. “If they start locking up Western land, most of the West will be upset.”

A Republican leadership aide took a harder line about the committee’s Democratic lineup, predicting that Democratic policies on resource issues will alienate voters.

“These were strategic decisions made to facilitate a liberal agenda and insulate some Democrats from taking difficult votes on the issues,” the aide said.

But committee member Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) said Democrats’ environment and energy policies won’t hurt them politically.

“People in the West are just as smart as people in the East,” Hinchey said. “They understand there are issues like energy that have to be dealt with more intelligently than they have been in the past 12 years.”

Hinchey and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) led the fight to close a loophole that allowed oil-and-gas companies to avoid paying some royalties. Hinchey also has sponsored legislation in the past to designate 9.5 million acres in Utah as wilderness and led the call for an investigation into whether a lobbyist for Utah counties was able to “fix” land-use plans to favor development. Another high-profile Easterner joining the committee is Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.).

The committee’s new chairman, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is the first non-Western chairman in decades. He restored “Natural” to the committee’s name.

Rahall’s agenda for the next two years includes plans to start charging hard-rock mining companies for the minerals they extract from Western public lands. Also high on his list are “ensuring sustainable water supplies for the West” and securing adequate funding for enforcing the Endangered Species Act.

Some of that agenda will likely be overseen by one of the two Interior West Democrats: Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who chairs the newly consolidated National Parks, Forests and Public Lands panel, and Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who is running for the Senate.

By comparison, there are nine Republicans from the Interior West on the panel, even though the GOP has fewer seats.

Most of the panel’s Western Democrats come from California, though freshman Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who unseated former chairman Richard Pombo (R) in a November upset, didn’t join the panel.

Some Western members moved on to bigger-name committees, such as Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who now has a seat on Appropriations, and Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), who joined the Rules Committee.

But Hinchey said he got a waiver to serve on both Natural Resources and Appropriations after Democratic leadership recruited him to rejoin the committee he served on when he came to Congress in 1993.

“Apparently, there was a need for more members,” Hinchey said.

Cannon figures Democrats just ran out of people to serve on the panel.

“A lot of people got drafted who didn’t care that much,” Cannon said.

Still, none of the newly elected Democrats from the West joined the panel, while nearly all the new Republicans from the West did.

The lack of new members comes despite efforts by environmental lobbying groups to get new Democrats to sign up. Some of those involved say it was difficult to recruit members when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was offering plum assignments to freshman members.

For example, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was selected for the Armed Services Committee. But she also got two other assignments, neither of which were Natural Resources.

Former Democratic Rep. Pat Williams of Montana, who will be testifying today as a founding member of a new left-leaning think tank called Western Progress, said he doesn’t see the lack of Democrats on the committee as a significant problem. But he does think it will be bad for the West if Democrats don’t engage on environmental issues.

“They may be trying to avoid the classic battle of the West — the collision of development and preservation,” Williams said. “The West is the Gettysburg of that fight and that committee is the front line.

“It’s a problem for the West if members do not want to face the environmental imperative of the West. The Democratic Party will become less attractive to voters,” he said.

Colorado-based Democratic strategist Mike Stratton said two Western House seats should be in the top five targeted seats for the Democrats in 2008: the seat held by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and the suburban Las Vegas seat held by Rep. Jon Porter (R).

“They need to talk about these issues, the use of public lands, planned growth, balanced growth. These are crucial,” Stratton said.

Some also noted that the party doesn’t have much of a bench in the West, because Republicans dominated the region so thoroughly for so many years.“There’s been this 12-year period that was kind of a desert,” said former representative and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, an icon of the conservation movement.