The Wayward West: It Came from the Outback

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

The Wayward West: It Came from the Outback

And then the best growled, snacked, and was sent to bed for being bad. But Congressman Don Young and his minions, eager to gobble up the nation's environmental laws, aren't sated yet.
By Weston Kosova

The underground trolley that shuttles members of Congress, Hill employees, and visitors between the U.S. Capitol and the Rayburn House Office Building glides along at a stately pace of five miles per hour. The trip takes two minutes--which, it turns out, was precisely the amount of time Don Young needed to give me the slip. It was the last week in July, and I'd been trying for months to get an audience with the Alaska Republican, chairman of the powerful House Resources Committee and arguably the most despised man in all of envirodom. His gatekeepers had other ideas. "He's really much too busy," came the unwavering response to my calls. Then one afternoon, just as the trolley was pulling out, the man himself plopped down directly across from me.

"What do you mean, they say I won't talk to you?" he demanded, his bearded jaw slackening in disbelief. I explained my plight. "Of course I'll talk to you," he assured me. "I'd be happy to." And yet something about his squinty grin told me this would be our last conversation. The trolley stopped. Young bounded out. "Just call Jennifer," he said. "We'll set something up." And with a heavy slap on my back he was gone, wriggling through the crowd and up a narrow escalator like a sockeye salmon battling the current.

An hour later I called Jennifer. "The congressman says to say he's sorry," she chirped, "but he's really much too busy."

There is, of course, a certain irony in the chairman's sudden refusal to talk. During 22 years in the House, the 62-year-old Young has earned a reputation as one of the Capitol's loudest, angriest men, tirelessly crusading to keep his home state safe from the grabby hands of government regulators and waging a lifelong war on environmentalists, whom he dismisses as "idiots" and "socialists." Even Representative Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, Young's pal and political ally, concedes that, on the volubility meter, "Don can be something of a wild man."

For most of Young's career, environmentalists were shielded from his wrath by the simple fact that, as a Republican in a Democratic House, he was marooned in clout Siberia. That all changed on Election Day 1994. The Republican wipeout handed Young his most sought-after prize: chairmanship of Natural Resources, the committee that oversees many of the environmental issues that matter most out West, including mining, timber, and grazing policies; oil exploration; and endangered-species protection. Together with a loyal brood of freshman members that he packed onto the committee--fellow fire-breathers like Helen Chenoweth of Idaho and John Shadegg of Arizona--Young vowed to crush every one of the environmental movement's precious programs. He would sell off Bureau of Land Management holdings, pincushion the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with oil rigs, and eviscerate a law that's especially controversial in the West, the Endangered Species Act. "If we don't rewrite it, it's dead," Young smugly said of the ESA last January. Snagging a choice line from another famously bombastic orator, Nikita Khrushchev, he promised environmentalists that he would "bury them."

And that's how it was supposed to play out. Heading into 1996, however, a strange thing has happened: not much. So far, thanks to a combination of unexpected opposition from Republican moderates, polls showing that Americans want the GOP to slow down on environmental reforms, and outright luck, the widely feared radical reform of environmentalism has fallen short of the hype. To be sure, there have been setbacks, and the war is far from over. But it's becoming clear that Young has been stymied in a way that few anticipated last winter. At the end of his first year as Resources chairman, he finds himself facing many of the same political blockades that hampered him when Democrats ruled the roost. His two major priorities--rewriting the ESA in a way that essentially guts it and opening ANWR to drilling--have stalled.

For now, anyway. The problem for environmentalists--and the reality that makes the 1996 elections of supreme importance for them--is that while the beast may be in chains, the chains are pretty weak. After all, endangered-species protection is only one of the pet issues on Young's hit list. There are plenty of others that could come under the knife next year, even with significant opposition from Republican moderates. Over the summer, for instance, House Republicans managed, albeit narrowly, to slash Environmental Protection Agency funding by a third. Meanwhile, the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts are under the GOP microscope. And Young's committee has already approved a bill, written by Young loyalist James Hansen of Utah, to establish a "review" commission that would look at closing up to 150 national parks. The bill's fate in the House will be decided next year.

For his part, Young is already dreaming of a post-Clinton world in which ANWR's hallowed ground gushes oil. If Clinton does go down in '96, the revolution next time could be for real. With Bob Dole or Phil Gramm in the White House, the single greatest impediment to a wholesale dismantling of the green agenda would disappear. "Clearly, the worst fear of many in the environmental community is a Republican administration and a Republican-packed Congress," says Beth Norcross, vice-president for conservation at American Rivers, a Washington-based environmental group. "We'd no longer have any buffer."

Hence Young may not have much traction yet, but as far as he's concerned, he's just getting started.

If Don Young were in a talking mood, he might explain how he came to hate environmentalists so much, a tale that blends mythopoetic nostalgia for the frontier with the more prosaic aspirations of a political hack. Young was born in Meridian, California, where his father read to him from The Call of the Wild. Captivated, he left California after a stint in the army and headed north in 1958, eventually settling in Fort Yukon, Alaska, a tiny village just north of the Arctic Circle. There he married an American Indian woman and worked variously as a schoolteacher, riverboat captain, and fur trapper, mushing his dog team into the wilderness and living off the fat of the land.

But the settler's ascetic life was not the sum of Young's ambitions. In 1960 he began dabbling in local politics, sitting on the Fort Yukon city council and later in the mayor's chair, and eventually serving six years in the Alaska legislature. In 1973 he won Alaska's sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, campaigning on a solemn vow to keep environmental meddlers from the Lower 48 out of Alaska's business.

As a policy position, Young's antienvironmentalism was genuine enough. Like many Alaskans who had banged out a living on the frozen frontier, he resented outsiders who presumed to regulate a place they didn't understand. As it happened, though, Young's platform was perfectly in tune with the richest political interests in the state: extraction industries. He was an especially fierce advocate of oil exploration, an ardent supporter of the Transalaska Pipeline, and a proponent of logging in Tongass National Forest. He surfed to Washington on a wave of corporate cash, a relationship that continues to flourish. Last year, for example, Young received $163,000 from oil, mining, gas, and miscellaneous energy interests.

Two oft-told tales illustrate why Young terrifies greens. For years, as the ranking Republican on the then-Democratic Natural Resources Committee, Young was renowned for larding environmental legislation with industry-pleasing amendments. When parliamentary tactics failed, he used ugly theatrics. In 1990, Young went berserk when Democrat Robert Mrazek of New York introduced a bill to scale back logging in the Tongass. Young tracked Mrazek down on the House floor, pulled out a hunting knife, and vowed to get even. In 1994, at another memorable hearing, Young whipped out an 18-inch oosik, the penis bone of a walrus, and brandished it at Fish and Wildlife Service chief Mollie Beattie as he lectured her about the need for continued walrus hunting.

In those years, though, environmentalists could still dismiss Young as a blustery pest. George Miller, the California Democrat who preceded Young as committee chairman, was a fierce defender of environmental protection, immune to the pleas and enticements of timber and oil lobbyists. Still, the Youngian specter made people wonder. Descending Capitol Hill after a contentious committee-room bout between Miller and Young, environmental leaders would muse lightly to one another, "Can you imagine what it would be like if Young were in charge?"

Well, they got their answer. And lest there be any doubt about Young's intentions, the new chairman's first act last January was to change the committee's name, yanking "Natural" to arrive at the more utilitarian-sounding "Resources Committee." As far as environmentalists were concerned, he might as well have dubbed it the Committee on Skinning and Salting.

Of his two priorities, ANWR and the ESA, Young tackled the latter with particular energy. His plan was to saddle the act with so many complex regulations that it would be impossible to enforce. He would also require the government to compensate landowners for portions of their property cordoned off as protected habitat. Interior Department officials on a tight budget would have to think twice before declaring land off-limits.

Why the obsession? For starters, the ESA symbolizes what Young despises most about federal regulations: It gives outsiders wide-ranging powers to dictate what private landowners and industries can and can't do on their property. But there was something personal involved, too. As one aide to a Resources Committee Republican puts it, only half-facetiously, "It's simple. It's the issue that bothers environmentalists the most."

"This is my Bob Dole handshake," Helen Chenoweth jokes stiffly, taking my left hand and giving it a squeeze. We're standing in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building, just outside the room where the House is holding seemingly endless hearings about the Waco raid. Two days before, Chenoweth--who insists on being called "Congressman"--slipped during a meeting and fractured her right elbow. It's swollen to the size of a baseball, and her doctor has ordered her to have it drained, but she refuses to miss these hearings. The Idahoan considers the Waco siege an unforgivable government attack on individual liberty, and she wants to audit every minute of the interrogation. As she waits to get inside, she talks about the ESA, delivering what has become her standard harangue.

"Across this land I have heard the same stories about the fact that plants and animals have a higher right to the land than humans do," she says, her face drawn up tightly against her physical discomfort. "People want environmental regulations, but not at the expense of economic hardship and the health of the family."

Don Young couldn't have said it better himself. Indeed, Chenoweth is one of 13 staunchly right-wing freshmen whom Young handpicked for the Resource Committee. Now, of 25 Republicans on the committee, more than half are Young loyalists. What's more, nine are from western states, tipping the balance away from the eastern liberals who dominated the panel for years. Among Young's new protégés are Linda Smith of Washington, who maintains that "some of the best habitat areas are under power lines," and Shadegg, who has proposed stocking zoos with endangered species to free up their habitats for development.

Last spring, troops in place, Young appointed an Endangered Species Task Force to travel the country under the pretext of "listening to the people" about the ESA. He appointed Richard Pombo of California, an aggressive clone, to trot out dozens of ranchers and farmers who told horrifying tales of abusive government bureaucrats trampling their rights in the name of blunt-nosed lizards and golden-cheeked warblers. But, as was reported at the time, the hearings were rigged. People with horror stories were actively sought out by the panel, while landowners with happier tales were shunned. "It was a kangaroo court," says Roger Schlickeisen, executive director of Defenders of Wildlife.

Stacked hearings are a time-honored tradition with both parties in Congress, but these backfired. Young and Pombo were counting on a level of anger about environmental regulation that may not exist. For example, 70 percent of those answering an ABC News/Washington Post poll last May stated that the government has "not gone far enough" to protect the environment.

Unfortunately for Young, many of his Republican colleagues also feel that a radical regulatory rollback is a mistake. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, a moderate, was so disgusted by the task-force hearings that he accused Pombo of "using a sledgehammer to kill an ant." Over the summer he attempted to round up support for a more compromising alternative to Young's bill, one that would provide incentives for landowners to comply. Gilchrest isn't just some wayward rebel; he has the tug to peel away as many as 40 moderates. That may not seem like much, but Republicans have only a 231-203 majority in the House, and as Young knew, only 28 votes would be needed to hold his bill hostage.

Young also bumped against another, tougher problem: Newt Gingrich. The Speaker, an ardent animal lover, is himself an ESA moderate. He also despises Young, one of only three Republican incumbents who refused to sign Gingrich's beloved Contract with America. (Young opposed the now-dead term-limits provision.) Gingrich was a sponsor of a 1994 measure to reauthorize the ESA without a crippling overhaul, a plan that Young fought successfully to kill.

The animosity is mutual. "Young thinks Gingrich is a wimp," says an aide to a House Republican. "Newt thinks Young is a Neanderthal." Gingrich was disgusted by the glee Young was taking in dismantling the ESA, so he put on the brakes. Testifying before Young's task force last May, he denounced the panel for going too far, too fast. Young had intended to unveil his bill in late June. Gingrich ordered him to hold off until fall. In doing so, he derailed the centerpiece of Young's agenda.

With Gingrich on the opposition, it soon became clear that for the bill to get anywhere, Young would have to try a major rethink. He spent the August recess circulating a draft version of the ESA rewrite, to find out what changes the dread moderates would require in order to play along.

"I'm a big admirer," Billy Tauzin says of Young. "Don can stir things up real good." Stretched out in his airy Capitol Hill sitting room, the trim, tanned Louisianan waxes poetic about the cause, his banjo twang seeping out around the edges of his official Beltway tone. Above us, two eight-point whitetail heads stare blankly at our scalps. A stuffed turkey, wings unfurled, scrambles up the wall. Tauzin and Young are both members of the Sportsmen's Caucus, a loose gathering of about 180 like-minded congressmen and senators who get together on weekends to shoot and hunt. Politically, the two are a matched set, especially since Tauzin bolted the Democratic Party over the summer and signed on with the GOP.

Where Young usually goes for untempered howling, though, Tauzin is more sober. Ask him about Young's chances of seeing an ANWR drilling bill signed into law in 1995, and he admits, "That's probably a post-'96 issue." With visible irritation, Tauzin says that the lingering memory of the Exxon Valdez spill is enough to make even Republican crusaders hesitant.

He's more exasperated by the endless wrangling over endangered species. "The discovery of an endangered species on your land is trouble with a capital T, if you remember the musical, and that rhymes with B, and that stands for Babbitt, I guess, huh?" Tauzin smiles, pleased with the line. "If I'm a landowner, I will do anything I can not to let you know an endangered species is there. So I don't want to be surveyed. I don't want the federal government around me. I want to be left alone. We've got incredibly horrible stories about people who shoot and shovel and shut up--kill the animal and get rid of it."

Young's and Tauzin's new line, crafted over the summer, faintly echoes the moderate's demands. Landowners should comply with the ESA, but they deserve incentives. "We're going to say to them, Look, we're going to work with you on habitat conservation planning that lets you continue to use your property in ways that won't hurt the animals," Tauzin says. "We'll create tax incentives and habitat grants. We'll do the kinds of things that make it easy for you to be a partner in wildlife conservation rather than the enemy, the victim."

Young's grudging attempt at compromise is no coincidence, but a concession to political reality. By and large, greens are wary of the hospitality. "There are a lot of people saying that they don't intend to repeal the act or gut the act," says Michael Beene, the endangered-species specialist at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Many of these same members of Congress, if you could get them to talk off the record, would tell you quite plainly that they don't give a damn about protecting endangered species. They're listening to the advice of their pollsters, who warn them they can't tell people what they honestly believe."

George Miller, the former Natural Resources Committee chairman, is equally dismissive. "The rhetoric has changed," he huffs, "but has the legislation really changed? They still have a clear ideological commitment to gutting the act."

New approach or no, Young realizes that gutting anything might be tough as long as Clinton is in town. After taking a beating from greens last year for lukewarm stands on western timber issues, the president has pumped up the volume of his environmental rhetoric. Several times he's hinted that he'll veto legislation that would weaken environmental protections.

Tauzin, for one, derides Clinton's new line as pure politics. "I think the president has made a decision that there is a 5, perhaps 7 percent advantage for him to win the environmentalist vote by vetoing our legislation," Tauzin complains. "He and Al Gore are going to campaign out there again to oppose us, this awful group that wants to rape and pillage and destroy."

Hence Young and company are looking beyond this year and next. "I think the best thing we have going for us is the realization that if Clinton loses the West, he'll go the way of George Bush," says Chenoweth, who believes that Clinton's new proenvironment stump language--heard, for example, in his late-August speech at Yellowstone, where he railed against the GOP push to close national parks--will be his undoing in the West. Environmentalists hope just the opposite is true, and the vastly different perceptions underscore what will be the paramount question in 1996. What will western voters say? That they didn't really mean it when they elected the Chenoweths and Pombos? Or that these people, and more like them, still have a mission that needs to be accomplished? Taking the first position, while comforting, ignores the fact that angry Republicans such as Chenoweth made no secret of their extreme positions and were specific about what they intended to do.

In the meantime, the slowdown of the Young onslaught at least gives environmentalists time to come off the sidelines as a political force. For green groups, the special place they once had at Miller's side was taken over by oil tycoons and mining dons at a moment when they were still feeling somewhat lulled by Clinton's presence. "Once Clinton and Gore came into office," says Schlickeisen, "we made the assumption that environmental protection was pretty well taken care of. That turned out to be highly mistaken."

Looking ahead to 1996, environmental groups have been engaged in a sweaty campaign to awaken their armies, sometimes drawing on the same shrill tactics used by Young. Over the summer, the Sierra Club fired off a throbbing letter warning that "the newly strengthened, anti-conservation forces in Congress...will rob you of your natural heritage." The letter singled out, among others, Young, Gingrich, and Senator Jesse Helms as the biggest threats. Though Helms is always good for a scare, he has almost nothing to do with environmental policy. And Gingrich, for the most part, has helped.

As some environmentalists are starting to realize, such heavy breathing isn't going to save the day if still more Republicans pack into the Capitol after the next election. So, ironically, greens are cautiously considering the possibility that it may make sense to work with Young now, when he's being forced by circumstances at least to listen to their demands. Defenders of Wildlife, for instance, has issued its own suggestions for rewriting the ESA and included many of the changes that Young has recently proposed, among them increasing incentives for property owners, enlisting independent scientists to weigh in on nominated species, and giving states a stronger say in the process.

"I think there is the potential for much more common ground than in the past," says the EDF's Beene. "Enviro groups, landowner groups, industry groups now are all saying they favor incentives, as do most members of Congress."

Melinda Pierce, who tracks the ESA for the Sierra Club, agrees. Sort of. She's worried that the current spirit of quasi détente will end before enough people realize it exists. "We are beginning to discover areas of agreement," she concedes. "But since both sides still aren't talking to each other, neither side would know it."

Weston Kosova, a Washington correspondent for Newsweek, has written about Congress for the New Republic and the Washington Post.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!