Off the Marc 

Why Racicot isn’t qualified to be Secretary of the Interior

Despite his boyish good looks and family pedigree, George W. Bush was trounced in the New Hampshire Republican primary because voters don’t believe that “Dubya” is qualified to be President. According to exit polls, fully one third of New Hampshire’s Republican voters said Bush wasn’t well-informed enough to be President. New Hampshire voters decided that Dubya is an empty suit and voted for John McCain instead.

Just as Bush isn’t qualified for the presidency, his political soul mate in Montana, Gov. Marc Racicot, is not qualified to be Secretary of Interior. Although national and state media have tagged Racicot as a potential cabinet member under Bush, he’s not up to the job.

It can be argued whether Racicot is managerially aloof from conservation and resource issues in Montana, or whether he really isn’t interested. Others have suggested a more sinister duplicity: that Racicot is fully aware of these issues, but lets his henchmen at various state agencies do the dirty work.

Whatever makes the governor’s clock tick, his popular image of compassion and charm closely resembles that of Dubya. Anyone who has ever participated in a high school popularity contest knows that it’s based on looking good, acting friendly and avoiding anything that might be controversial. High poll numbers are an indicator of popularity, but not leadership abilities.

And it is leadership abilities that this nation clearly needs in its next Secretary of Interior. As manager of a half-billion acres of public land, the next Secretary must help the West navigate its ongoing, inevitable transition from a frontier, resource-exploiting society to a sustainable, conservation-based society.

Racicot has not been constructively engaged in these issues in Montana. Why hand him the keys to the agency that has lead responsibility for public lands, waters and wildlife across the entire nation?

In the recent heat of the political season, Racicot has stepped from behind his veneer of popularity to address important public policy issues. His stance on these issues, however, reinforces the perception that he is eminently unqualified to be Secretary of Interior. Consider the issues of Libby’s asbestos poisoning, the Forest Service roadless policy, and Yellowstone bison.

• Montanans were amazed at Racicot’s professed shock about scores of deaths in his native Libby caused by asbestos poisoning. Although Racicot claimed to have learned of these problems only last spring, this very column reported Libby’s asbestos poisoning more than two years ago, specifically calling on Racicot to provide leadership in removing Lincoln County’s corporate skeletons from its community closet.

Lincoln County, and Montana generally, will never achieve the shining future it desires until state’s leaders squarely confront the lingering tragedies of the past. Instead, the Racicot Administration has botched several major mine cleanups, including Libby. When Libby residents gathered in November for a cathartic meeting to drag the asbestos skeleton into public view, native son Marc Racicot was absent. He was in New Hampshire to promote Bush’s ill-fated campaign.

• Lamenting the decline of western Montana’s timber industry, Racicot has attacked the Forest Service proposal to stop building new roads into roadless areas. In joining Idaho’s premature lawsuit against the proposal, Racicot complained that he couldn’t provide meaningful comments since he didn’t know the location of these roadless areas. In fact, the Forest Service proposal refers to the same, clearly identified roadless areas that have been the subject of Montana’s long-standing wilderness debate.

More disturbing, however, Racicot is unwilling to acknowledge the historical context of Montana’s timber woes. The dominant timber trend in Montana is the accelerated liquidation since the early 1980s of industrial forests managed by Champion International and Plum Creek, degrading water quality, destroying habitat and forcing the Forest Service to cancel logging on intermingled public lands.

Racicot knows about the corporate overcutting, but he blames only the federal government for reduced logging. Again, Racicot is leaning against the closet door so that another skeleton doesn’t escape. While forest restoration in roaded areas is the theme of the day, Racicot is still peering into the void of the old timber frontier.

• Racicot’s belligerent attitude toward bison migrating out of Yellowstone has given the state a national black eye. Ignoring science that shows bison pose virtually no disease risk to cattle, Racicot has held to a zero-tolerance policy for wandering bison. If Racicot had exhibited any leadership, this issue could have been resolved years ago.

Meanwhile, Racicot has promoted elk game farms, despite public alarms about the spread of chronic wasting disease and the repeated escape of captive elk into the wild. Racicot’s blatant kowtowing to the cattle industry and blasé attitude toward Montana wildlife illustrates his distorted priorities.

New Hampshire had it right: America needs more than just a pretty face in the White House. The same applies to the Department of Interior.

Steve Thompson works as an environmental consultant in Whitefish. The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.

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