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Environmentalists put down `Western rebellion'

WASHINGTON—The "Western rebellion" that propelled California Republican Rep. Richard Pombo to power now has receded, leaving many of its most important goals unmet and possibly beyond reach.

Democrats will run the House Resources Committee, which Pombo has led for the past four years. That will mean new priorities for parks, public lands and Western water.

It could mean less attention to a proposed San Joaquin River restoration in California's Central Valley.

The Democratic takeover also emboldens the environmental groups that spent well over a million dollars to help ensure Tuesday night's stunning defeat of Pombo.

It all portends an intriguing next couple of years in the environmental trenches.

"As environmentalists, we're often frustrated that our issues are not part of the political conversation," Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, said Wednesday. "But in race after race across the country, the environment was part of the conversation ... (and) we're proud of what we did."

The Western rebellion, also known as the Sagebrush rebellion, involves people in the West who think that the federal government oversteps itself on property rights issues, especially regarding enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. They also chafe over the fact that half the West is owned by the federal government instead of privately.

Pombo's surprisingly resounding loss to wind energy consultant Jerry McNerney, 53 percent to 47 percent, made the onetime rancher the only one of 19 Republican committee chairmen in the House of Representatives to go down in defeat Tuesday.

Pombo wasn't, however, the only Republican targeted by environmental groups. Of 13 lawmakers identified by the League of Conservation Voters' "Dirty Dozen" campaign, nine lost Tuesday. They included Rep. Charles Taylor of North Carolina, whose Democratic opponent, Heath Shuler, likewise benefited from the organization's ads. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, another ad target, also lost.

With the exception of Pombo's race, the environment wasn't the highest profile issue in targeted House and Senate campaigns. Independent polls ranked it far below Iraq, terrorism, ethics and health care. Taken together, though, the congressional departures transform the environmental debate.

"We've elected a greener U.S. House and a greener U.S. Senate," said Cathy Duvall, the national political director for the Sierra Club.

The probable new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. She's one of the Senate's most liberal members; the current chair, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, is among the most conservative.

The changing cast of characters will play out in many ways:

_The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil-and-gas drilling perennially championed by House Republicans won't go anywhere in the next Congress. Drilling off the coast of Florida or other states becomes a real long shot.

_Other controversial ideas that Pombo once toyed with—such as selling 15 little-visited National Park Service sites, including playwright Eugene O'Neill's home in the California city of Danville—are down for the count.

_The Endangered Species Act, which Pombo built his career on combating, has a new lease on life. The Democrat who's poised to become House Resources Committee chairman, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, voted against Pombo's Endangered Species Act legislation. The League of Conservation Voters gave Rahall a vote ranking of 92, compared with Pombo's score of 17.

Rahall also doesn't share Pombo's predilection for rhetorical combat.

"Eco-hysteria: Then and Now," proclaims one report on Pombo's House Resources Committee Web site. Another declares: "Poll: Most Americans Believe Environmental Groups are too Extreme."

Pombo's defeat vindicates environmental groups' decision to pour manpower and money into the campaign in California's 11th Congressional District. The Sierra Club spent $545,000, mobilized 312 volunteers and sent 397,000 mailers. The Defenders of Wildlife and its affiliates spent $1.2 million, and its volunteers knocked on some 75,000 doors.

"We went there early and decided to stake our flag on this guy," said Mark Longabaugh, the political director of the Defenders of Wildlife. "It was time for the guy to go."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, while saying he couldn't really say how prominent environmental issues were nationwide, did stress the role that outside environmental groups played in toppling Pombo.

"That was all grassroots," Dean said. "We at the DNC didn't see it. They did it by an extraordinary grassroots effort in a conservative area."

Even before Democrats take power in January, Tuesday's election will be felt in at least one Western resource debate.

As a lame duck, Pombo will have much less clout in moving the legislation that's needed to implement a multi-hundred-million-dollar San Joaquin River restoration plan. The legislation, yet to be introduced by Republican California Rep. George Radanovich, is needed to finish settling a long-running lawsuit that would return salmon to the river. Backers of the San Joaquin River plan had hopes of getting the bill introduced and passed during the upcoming lame-duck session; that now seems remote.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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