Looking to boost his flagging poll numbers in the Republican presidential primary battle, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush yesterday became the first GOP candidate to put forth a detailed policy plan for issues of high importance to Western voters -- ranging from developing natural resources at a faster pace to ensuring access rights for hunters and anglers.
During a series of appearances in Nevada, which will host the fourth nominating contest in the 2016 cycle, Bush outlined his plans for public lands policy if elected, while vowing to make Western states "equal partners" with the federal government in overseeing millions of acres of public land.
The most notable of his proposals included relocating the Interior Department's headquarters from Washington, D.C., to as far west as Reno, Nev. -- or Salt Lake City or Denver (Greenwire, Oct. 21).
Bush also emphasized to voters at a campaign stop in Reno his desire to shrink the federal government -- suggesting his administration could easily part ways with up to 10 percent of the federal workforce -- and said he would "consider" a push from conservatives Republicans to turn over federal lands to the states.
"The economic interests of this country should be on equal footing with every other public good," Bush told state and local officials during his stop in Reno, which included an hourlong roundtable on public lands. "Economic opportunity is as important a public good as protecting a critter, or protecting wild Nevada. Those are important values, for sure, but so is progress. So is more income in people's pockets, and we've kind of lost sight of that."
Among his proposals, Bush emphasized a desire to shore up existing national parks and other federal land and endorsed a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired earlier this month for the first time in its 50-year history.
While Bush endorsed using the fund to purchase "inholdings," or private land within federal parks, forests and wildlife refuges -- the program uses fees from offshore oil and gas lease rentals and royalty receipts and claimed a $20 billion balance sheet at the time of its expiration -- he stressed his opposition to creating new national monuments.
"We don't need to keep buying land," Bush said in Reno. Bush has also proposed using the LWCF funds to tackle a backlog of maintenance projects in national parks, calling the funding a "gift" for the National Park Service's 100th anniversary next year.
During a question-and-answer session, Bush also told one local Nevada official that he would consider efforts to turn over federal lands to state control.
"One of the things that I think would be appropriate would be to look at pilot programs where states manage lands -- where they have the resources and capability and skills to be able to do it -- and I certainly would consider the transference issue," Bush said.
Bush's policy proposals also included expediting funding for water storage and infrastructure projects, arguing that faster timetables for such projects are key to addressing ongoing drought in Western states, as well as limiting the permitting process for using federal lands to a two-year period.
He similarly endorsed utilizing federal lands for multiple uses, vowing to maintain access to hunters and anglers, while also easing the way for grazing, timber, mining, oil and gas production, and renewable energy production on those lands.
Bush also said that, if elected, he would convene experts to develop a new national policy to address wildfires and expedite "forest health" efforts to reduce fires.
"Has anybody measured the carbon emissions of a massive forest fire? Maybe all the people freaking out about the climate change issue could bring their passion to bear to bring about better forest management," Bush told one voter in Reno who expressed concerns about potential fires on federal land.
'These issues are pretty important'
Whether Bush's new focus on Western issues will sway voters in an important early voting state and sway GOP contingencies elsewhere in the West remains to be seen, but recent polls suggest he needs the assist: a RealClearPolitics average of a half-dozen October polls shows Bush is now in fifth place nationally behind businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.
During his Nevada appearance, he repeatedly made thinly veiled references to Trump without naming the front-runner.
"We've got big personalities on the stage these days, and they don't listen -- they just tell you how it's going to be," Bush said.
Still, his shift to issues of importance to Western voters shows Bush is likely strategizing how to remain afloat in the longer primary season, said Paul Bledsoe, a former assistant to Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt who now runs the firm Bledsoe and Associates LLC.
"These issues are pretty important electorally in Western states, even though obviously the Western states are not highly represented in the first round of primaries; it suggests that Bush is looking at the long haul," Bledsoe said. "I think it's part of a broader political strategy to gain a foothold in key Western states that are not in the media spotlight right now."
In fact, Bush's proposal to relocate the Interior Department headquarters gained significant media attention yesterday, although whether moving the department's approximately 5,000 D.C.-based staff could depend on whether the GOP retains control of the Senate as well as the House, given the likely costs.
"It strikes me a little bit like the 'I'm going to eliminate four Cabinet departments' perennial promise that has never come true from Republicans. This one might have a possibility of a little more legs given that Republicans control Congress," Bledsoe said.
Alan Rowsome, director of government relations at the Wilderness Society, did not comment directly on Bush's policy proposals but said he hoped to see the discussion spur other candidates to share their views on public lands.
"I think it's really important for the American public to know where candidates stand on conservation and on outdoor recreation and on climate change and on our environment," Rowsome said. "Efforts to bring that debate up are very healthy for the American public in general to be able to listen to where candidates stand on the issues."
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities -- who yesterday criticized Bush's proposal to relocate Interior's offices, pointing to the majority of its staff who work in state and field offices (Greenwire, Oct. 21) -- praised Bush for endorsing the reauthorization of the LWCF.
"It's important that all of the candidates acknowledged that LWCF needs to be reauthorized. We can't allow Congress to play politics with our public lands," she said.
But Rokala criticized Bush's proposal to reallocate the LWCF funds to address maintenance in the nation's parks, noting that the existing backlog was created because of congressional budget cuts.
"Congress needs to find a way to fund the maintenance through the normal appropriations process. We shouldn't rob Peter to pay Paul," she said.
Rokala also questioned Bush's assertion that relationships between state and federal officials are poor, pointing to recent negotiations that kept the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
"The recent sage grouse announcement is a great example of how partnerships should work," she said.
But during his Reno appearance, Bush dismissed the sage grouse efforts, arguing that federal plans covering millions of acres in 10 Western states are more restrictive than an ESA listing would have required.
"It validates my belief that we ought to reverse this and think about everything from the bottom up," he said. Three lawsuits have been filed aiming to halt the rules since last month, most recently by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (Greenwire, Oct. 16).
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