SPECIAL REPORT: Ron Arnold – How Wendy Van Asselt and her friends made 26 million acres disappear

Environmental activist Wendy Van Asselt was at the World Resources Institute in 2003 when officials from the Wilderness Society made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

They wanted her to lead a huge project to remove 26 million acres of federal land in the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) from oil and gas production, grazing, timber harvesting, mining for strategic minerals, off-road recreation, and providing rural jobs.

Van Asselt was a logical choice for the job since she had shown in her position at WRI — and previously at the Mineral Policy Center, with its shrill “No Dirty Gold” campaign — that she had a decided preference for stopping natural resource development, especially on federal lands.

The Wyss Foundation would fund the new project, thanks to a Wilderness Society board member, Hansjorg Wyss, a Swiss entrepreneur whose net worth was estimated at $6 billion. The Hewlett Foundation would also give $1 million to the project.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which managed the NLCS, would be cooperative, too, since stopping all those productive activities would require real authority for the system, authority that would give it a real budget, and it didn’t have either of them. The BLM would need help in persuading Congress to go along.

That was because Bruce Babbitt, President Clinton’s secretary of interior, had created the NLCS in 2000 by bureaucratic decree without first getting congressional approval. His “system” was really just a bureaucratic name for more than 800 existing BLM areas, each authorized separately, all created for various purposes, at various times, under various laws, with various budgets.

So, Van Asselt’s new job would be to get Congress to authorize Babbitt’s NCLS and give it a real budget. The graduate of Smith College (economics) and Harvard (master’s in public policy) would soon prove very much up to the challenge.

By the end of 2004, Van Asselt had organized a coalition of 50 anti-development groups to cover the NCLS’ far-flung units. She had also tapped a former colleague to help wangle the National Trust for Historic Preservation into putting the entire NLCS on its popular “Most Endangered Places” report card. That in turn prompted an invitation from the National Academy of Sciences to co-author an article for its main publication.

Since 2005 was the fifth “birthday” of NLCS, Van Asselt used it for a celebratory blitz and a forum to keep up her finely tuned attack on developers who opposed stopping development on the 26 million acres Van Asselt was eyeing. She clearly understood the game and made things happen.

It was a classic Washington iron triangle: The TWS folks loved her; the funders loved her, and the BLM loved her. Soon, some key members of Congress would love Van Asselt, too.

The BLM’s Elena Daly, director of the NLCS, began working closely with Van Asselt. Daly’s official appointment book includes multiple entries indicating she and Van Asselt regularly shared lunch and other meetings.

By 2006, BLM, TWS, and the funders (who ultimately poured more than $5 million into the campaign) knew Van Asselt was a political whiz kid. With Van Asselt’s close ties to the BLM, she could do what BLM couldn’t, which was informally tell Congress what the agency sought for NCLS. It had to be done discreetly, however, because few congressmen were likely to vote for the kind of NCLS that Van Asselt and her allies at BLM really wanted.

Multiple congressional sources point to creation of the NLCS Caucus in Congress in 2006 as the key development in Van Asselt’s campaign, convinced that it was suggested by her to Arizona Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva, the ultra-green chairman of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Grijalva, who was Van Asselt’s most important congressional ally, convened the bipartisan caucus, selected three co-chairmen — Reps. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. — and grew the caucus into an instrument of power.

Regardless who suggested the caucus, Van Asselt was clearly counting votes on the Hill, as shown in a June 27, 2006, e-mail from her to Daly in which she gleefully reported that Rep. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., had just joined the newly formed caucus.

“Bring on the Rs!” Van Asselt crowed. “Keep ‘em coming!”

Then, on April 4, 2007, Van Asselt left TWS to work for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., as a member of the panel’s Democratic legislative staff. It was the perfect position from which Van Asselt could guide NCLS across the finish line, because the job put her at the coordinating center of the iron triangle pushing for the project.

Shortly after Van Asselt was hired by Rahall, Grijalva introduced the first NLCS bill, which was barely a page long, with only a vague paragraph authorizing the new system, and listing Bureau of Land Management areas to be included.

Republican legislators were horrified. “This bill goes well beyond a codification of what already exists,” their bill report said. “The [NLCS] is to be managed “in a manner that protects the values for which the components of the system were designated. The term `values’ is a wholly new concept to the BLM,” plucked from a national parks bill “to purposefully mandate broad and vague new management practices” with “this nebulous, malleable term.”

The National Park Service enforces things like “viewscapes,” “soundscapes,” and “smellscapes” — indefinable concepts inappropriate for productive BLM lands.

“For us to pass legislation to enforce legislatively undefined ‘values’ on a vast, resource rich part of the country is an unacceptable abdication of our responsibility as the policy setting branch of the government,” the Republicans concluded.

Grijalva’s 2007 bill went nowhere, but Van Asselt’s work as a Rahall legislative staffer in keeping information flowing to the interested parties within and without government paid off two years later.

In January 2009, Grijalva’s NLCS bill was lumped into the grab bag Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which passed Congress and was signed into law March 30, 2009, by President Obama.

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