- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2000

More than 1,100 buffalo were dead. So the environmental posse was out to skin someone, anyone. They settled on Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a very popular Republican. The Greens' posse caught up to him on March 23, 1997, and they were hoping for a figurative lynching. Instead, their point-man got arrested.

The showdown came for Mr. Racicot at a public meeting in Gardiner, Mont. He was meeting with Montana Sens. Conrad Burns, a Republican, and Max Baucus, a Democrat, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Mike Finley. They were there to settle an impasse that forced state officials to shoot one-forth of the park's bison herd.

One environmentalist carried a 5-gallon pail of bloody, bison entrails to the meeting. Delyla Wilson rushed up to the table where the politicos were seated and emptied the bloody bucket. Messrs. Racicot and Glickman bore the brunt of the mess.

The problem was Mr. Racicot could not let Yellowstone bison into his state because they can carry a parasite, brucellosis, that is harmless to buffalo, but disastrous to cattle. It forces pregnant cows to have a miscarriage. When federal officials did not respond to these concerns, Mr. Racicot had state officials shoot the animals in their small migrating bands as they wandered out of the park in search of forage. The national media briefly took notice, but local and regional environmentalists never forgot what happened that winter.

The case shows Mr. Racicot's resolve, and one reason why he should be considered for secretary of interior in the next administration. Mr. Racicot will soon be looking for a new job anyway he is term limited and he will leave office in January. Too bad the 52-year-old, happily married father of five and native Montanan is the envy of his fellow governors. Despite the mess in Gardiner, he enjoys an 80 percent approval rating.

Mr. Racicot is already on George W. Bush's short list. The Montanan is a close confidant of the Texas governor, and is actively involved in his presidential campaign. After eight years of Secretary Bruce Babbitt's heavy-handed tactics, many Westerners believe Mr. Racicot is needed to clean up the mess in that department.

"I like the presumption of self-determination and the absolute trust in the people of this country to make the right decisions. I identify with [my] party's belief in promoting economic expansion by using the public lands," Mr. Racicot recently said in an interview with his arch-critic Todd Wilkinson in High Country News.

This type of outlook is now in dire need. Interior's constant land grabs have left Westerners stunned. Starting with the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante heist in Utah in 1996, the Clinton administration has used the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate federal lands as recreational entities ending logging, grazing and mining there. The Clinton crowd has used this blunt instrument to bang out a half-dozen new national monuments, totaling some 4 million acres. The land grabbers aren't done yet. Before Election Day, they plan to grab 280,000 acres at Paria Canyon, Ariz., and 90,000 acres in the Missouri Breaks in Montana.

Mr. Racicot knows the West and that its people need to make a living from the land. He opposed the Clinton administration's 43-million-acre Roadless Initiative, a plan designed to close off without local review even more land. As a former attorney general of Montana (1989-93), Mr. Racicot would also be able to navigate the never-ending environmental litigation.

Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore has been supportive of these land grabs. Just look for him, when he tries to steal the spotlight when more are announced. Mr. Gore needs the land grabs as a whip to drive the scattering Greens back into the Democrat corral. Mr. Gore's green credentials have been tarred by recent revelations of his connection to Occidental Petroleum's oil prospecting in Columbia's rain forest (he holds $500,000 worth of the company's stock), his part in a shady real estate deal involving New Jersey wetlands and contributions by a developer to the Democratic National Committee.

This is not to say that Marc Racicot doesn't have his detractors. He has been called "the figured head of a vicious administration." And Mr. Wilkinson, the Bozeman Chronicle columnist, advised his readers to mail a rock to the governor as a protest to his "Stone Age" management.

The liberal left hates Mr. Racicot for embracing the type of Montanan who uses and lives on the land. Mr. Racicot will also draw fire for believing that the Endangered Species Act needs reform. This Holy Writ of American environmentalism has been used by the Clinton administration to close off public lands to, ironically, the public. The act is also used to trample private property rights, which is why many Republicans want reform.

The next interior secretary will encounter continuing problems related to grazing rights and motorized access in the Bureau of Land Management's domain, the unconscionable deterioration of the infrastructure of the national parks, and continuing pressure by environmentalists to breach Western dams, thus adding to the West's mounting water wars.

As interior secretary, Marc Racicot could mitigate a lot of these issues and go a long way to giving public lands back to the public.

Bill Croke is a Cody, Wyo., free-lance writer.

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