On the first evening of summer, a grizzly bear and her yearling cub foraged for roots and grubs high up on the western slopes of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Farther up the valley, a group of visitors watched a pack of coyotes dispersing hurriedly after a wolf's howl pealed through the trees. As the sun lingered on the peaks, the valley took on a timeless quality, and the human visitors went quiet as they gazed at the landscape and the wildlife around them.
Few realized that 2,000 miles away, in Washington, a series of decisions were being made that could threaten the Yellowstone ecosystem. The previous evening the Interior Department had announced it was blocking a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Bitterroot Wilderness area in Idaho and Montana, northwest of Yellowstone, even though biologists say that such a reintroduction is ultimately necessary to maintain the genetic diversity of the bears in the park. The following week, Interior announced it was thinking about lifting a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone that had been agreed upon last year. At the same time, the Bush Administration was increasing pressure to open the Bridger-Teton National Forest just south of the park for oil and gas drilling.
Yellowstone, established in 1872 as the first national park, has become a focal point in the latest chapter in the epic Battle for the West that has raged for two centuries. The Bush Administration is pushing hard to open up large tracts of public land to drilling, logging, nuclear-waste storage and off-road vehicles. Whether it means exploring for oil in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, easing up on Clinton Administration road closings that put a third of the national forests off limits to logging or suspending new listings on the Endangered Species Act, the message from the White House is clear: the West is open for business. "I believe people should make decisions about their own lives," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton in an interview with Time last week. "Decisions made from behind a desk in Washington seldom reflect the knowledge and love that people have of their own communities."
Last week that conflict between federal and local came to a head in Klamath Falls, Ore., where angry farmers forced open an irrigation canal that had been closed off by the Bureau of Reclamation to save an endangered species of suckerfish. Some 1,400 farmers in the Klamath River Basin have been cut off from irrigation since April and watched their land dry up because a federal court has said the water must be preserved for the suckerfish, protected under the controversial ESA. Local businesses are closing down, farm laborers are leaving and ranchers are selling off their livestock.
"People are angry," says Alvin Cheyne, 80, who farms 670 acres in the Klamath Basin. "What the government has done is unbelievable." Feelings are running so high in Klamath Falls that even the local sheriff, Tim Evinger, decided not to intervene as the protesters opened the head gates from the Upper Klamath Lake with a chainsaw.