By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
What is truly hard to understand, however, is why Robert Redford would ever, under any circumstances, try to portray Max Baucus as a friend of the environment. Redford, after all, serves as a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council and has been an eloquent critic of federal land policy, particularly the noxious effects of cyanide heap-leach gold mining. In a recent speech before the National Press Club, Redford spoke out passionately against the mining companies: "I can only believe that their bottom lines will win out over the health of our lands and our people. I've already seen enough bright orange rivers with no fish, thanks to mining companies who swore their operations were safe--like the Blackfoot, for example, in Montana."
During the very same weeks Redford's letter was circulating in the sunrooms of Brentwood and Malibu, Baucus was shepherding through the Senate a rewrite of the Safe Drinking Water Act which will allow more toxins and carcinogens, such as radon and arsenic, into the nation's water supplies. Indeed, across the length and breadth of Congress it is impossible to uncover a more tenacious front man for the mining, timber, and grazing industries.
It was Baucus who singlehandedly crushed the Clinton administration's timid effort in 1993 to reform federal mining and grazing policy and terminate below-cost timber sales to big timber companies subsidized by the taxpayers. Baucus engineered a session at the White House with Mack McLarty, Clinton's then-chief of staff, and emerged boasting that this was the last time the Clinton crowd would dare to try and cram public land reforms down Western throats.
Nothing new here. Max Baucus has bailed out Western timber and mining industries on numerous occasions. Back in 1990, Baucus provided the decisive vote when the Senate killed a bipartisan effort to place a moratorium on the sale of mineral-rich federal lands to multinational mining companies for $5 an acre. Baucus has also helped squash repeated attempts to impose a royalty on federal lands mining. This cozy arrangement has allowed mining conglomerates, like the Canadian-owned Barrick Resources, to pay the federal treasury less than $10,000 for more than $10 billion in gold.
"The Baucus family made sure it received a 5 percent royalty on minerals extracted from their property," said Jim Jensen, director of the Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center. "Apparently, Senator Baucus doesn't believe the American people deserve the same return from the destruction of their public lands."
Baucus also has a deep personal interest in the present perquisites of the Western ranching industry. The Baucus family's Sieben Ranch is one of the largest sheep operations in North America, and it enjoys an exceptionally close and profitable relationship with public grazing lands adjacent to the ranch and administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Here, Baucus sheep graze for only 22 cents per animal per month, less than a fifth of the going rate on private lands. In the early 1980s, the Senate Ethics Committee censured Baucus for introducing a bill to restrict the import of lambs from Canada and New Zealand, a move designed to boost prices for domestic sheep. The Committee cited Baucus's financial stake in the family sheep ranch as a conflict of interest.
One of the grazing permits held by the Sieben Ranch is in the Helena National Forest. This wild landscape is home to the threatened grizzly bear, fewer than 800 of which now survive in the Lower 48. The Baucus family ranch holds one of Montana's only remaining sheep grazing permits in critical grizzly habitat. This is not a happy situation for the bears, since they like to eat sheep; when they do, the ranch manager calls in the government hunter, who duly shoots the perpetrator with sodium pentothal and exiles the bear to another area. If the bear returns, as they often do, they are either captured and placed in a zoo or, more typically, just killed. It's why sheep grazing permits have been denied in other federal forests in Montana occupied by grizzlies.
A Forest Service official at Helena National Forest told us that at least eight grizzlies had been killed over the years on Sieben Ranch allotments, making it one of the most lethal lands for grizzlies in the Northern Rockies. Bill Haskins, director of the Missoula-based Ecology Center, described the Baucus grazing allotment as "a sink for grizzlies." So as far as Ursus horribilis is concerned, then, Baucus spells nemesis.
Yet grizzlies are not the only endangered species threatened by the Sieben Ranch. In September 1994, a female wolf was killed on Baucus lands by government trappers working for Animal Damage Control. The death of the wolf was a violation of the Endangered Species Act, though no action was taken against the trappers or the Sieben Ranch. Baucus has been a frequent critic of the Endangered Species Act, and in 1992 introduced a rewrite of the law, which, among other weakening changes, would have made it easier for ranchers to kill endangered species that threaten their livestock.
In his war with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which has been battling to protect the 6 million acres of wild land in Montana's national forests, Baucus has played hardball. When Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts promised to sponsor the Alliance's visionary legislation, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which preserves all wildland and wildlife habitat on public lands in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, Baucus counterattacked by using his power as chairman of the Public Works Committee to withhold funds for the cleanup of Boston Harbor until Kennedy backed off.