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Purple Mountains Majesty: No on Tar Sands, Yes on Wilderness?

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Beauty Mountain | Photo: BLM

It's called Beauty Mountain, and the Obama administration now asserts that this Southern California peak--along with 17 other sites in the American west--deserves full protection as an official wilderness area.This assertion marks an about-face for the president, who has long conceded to GOP hardliners the power to cripple historic environmental regulations on the public lands, even agreeing not to bring forward wilderness nominations before the 2012 elections. Why the sudden change? Because grassroots organizations have started speaking up about the administration's failed environmental agenda and are fighting back; they've forced Obama to follow their lead.

If ever there was a place to make such a tough stand, it is Beauty Mountain (also known as Beauty Peak). After all, the mountain's environs contain, among other striking features, Million Dollar Spring, which Wilderness.net touts it as "one of the most pristine watersheds in all of southwestern California."

The site is host as well to a number of endangered and threatened species, including the Quino checkerspot butterfly and the California gnatcatcher. When in 2009 a portion of this land of steep ravines and deep canyons in southern Riverside County achieved federal designation as a wilderness, a bi-partisan coalition of environmentalists, local officials, and residents was thrilled.

Yet some of those who surely shared this joy have been confounded by the name bestowed on this chaparral-choked rise of unimpressive elevation (it tops out at 5,548 feet). "Beauty my arse," yelped one peakbagger after scaling the summit in 2003: "Karen picked up 200+ ticks on the ascent, and Wolf picked every one of them off of her (not to mention dozens off his own self...)."

Quino butterflys are a subspecies of the Edith's Checkerspot

It's not as if this couple (or others) had not been forewarned: the Sierra Club advises any intrepid souls hoping to add this summit to their list of conquests about the prickly difficulties they'll encounter. The mountain's trails are often impassable because with the "passage of time brush grows and regrows. The hiker should be prepared to find the route overgrown with brush and the clipped route obscured." Oh, and "seasonal tick blooms have been observed in the major gully. Light-colored clothing and frequent inspections are recommended." (Beauty, thy name is tick bloom?)

More mordant is the legendary mountaineering club's snarky conclusion about the mountain's appellation: "Named Beauty Mountain in the USGS Southern California Sheet No. 2 (1904)...at some time since then usage changed it to Beauty Peak. Otherwise the secret of the meaning of 'Beauty' has never been revealed."

The mountain's management has been something of a puzzle, too. It straddles Riverside and San Diego counties, a political demarcation that is partly responsible for the Bureau of Land Management's bifurcated administrative approach to the mountainous expanse. By law, the BLM is required to offer heightened wilderness protection to those acres that lie within Riverside County, courtesy of the 2009 Omnibus Wilderness Bill (Public Law 111-11). That's not true of the mountain's southern slope, located in adjoining San Diego County, which was not included in the 2009 legislation.

That terrain was excluded from the 2009 act due to a tangle of political and property-rights issues. In the early 1990s, when the first proposal surfaced to establish wilderness protections for the entire rugged terrain, the BLM balked.

It pointed out that Beauty Mountain's southern flank contained considerable private in-holdings that would have undercut its efforts to manage for wilderness values. This situation meant that it was not included in the 1994 Clinton administration wilderness proclamations, a legacy that shaped which acreage was incorporated into the next major round of wilderness legislation that occurred in 2009. Although by then the federal government had purchased the privately held properties in San Diego County around Beauty Mountain, only the land in Riverside County was included, forming the basis for the present-day 15,627-acre Beauty Mountain Wilderness Area.

This situation did not sit well with Representative Darrell Issa (R-Vista); he had submitted legislation to add the southern-slope acreage to the original 2009 enabling bill but it failed to gain traction. In January 2011 he revived the possibility, this time seeking to include more than 14,000 acres to the Beauty Mountain wilderness (and another 7000 to the nearby Aqua Tibia wilderness). In September, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) submitted a companion bill, creating critical bipartisan support for the project.

Until this past week, however, the Obama administration has been decidedly opposed to pursuing the expansion of the nation's wilderness system. It repeatedly has been cowed by right-wing conservatives, among them Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who used their positions on the Natural Resources Committee to slash federal land-management agencies' budgets; pass punitive legislation to strip wilderness protections from those lands situated along the U.S.-Mexico border; and, after stoking anti-immigrant hysteria, demand that the U. S. Border Patrol gain unfettered authority to run over parklands and preserves. Bishop kept up the heat on the White House this summer by trying to generate a Sagebrush Rebellion throughout the west, a strategy that further corralled the executive branch.

Protestors against the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline hold signs and stand on a Keith Haring sculpture as they demonstrate in San Francisco before the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama | Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Enter the Keystone XL pipeline, and the major protests it sparked. The project, which was to bring coal slurry from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas, was touted as an economic and job-creating bonanza. The State Department gave it a green light, after conducting a deeply flawed environmental-impact review of the pipeline's route over such essential resources as the Ogalala Aquifer. Expecting a very tight fight for reelection, President Obama was on the verge of embracing this fossil-fuel boondoggle that climate scientists believed would severely intensify global climate disruption.

Actress Daryl Hannah was arrested during a protest against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House in August | SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Then the political dynamic shifted with the Bill McKibben-inspired launch of Tar Sands Action (TSA). The spirited, bottom-up effort brought thousands of activists to the nation's capital, many of whom were arrested; this street action generated intense media scrutiny of the Keystone XL project. When combined with the eruption of Occupy Wall Street demonstrations across the country, TSA helped push the Tea Party off the front page and forced the president to recalculate the impact that approving the pipeline would have on his electoral prospects.In an unexpected turn-around, on November 2nd the State Department announced that it might not grant the pipeline's construction permits before January. That delay might have been surmountable, but a week later the Obama administration formally announced it would push the project's approval process until 2013. Most sources believe that this postponement will kill the project.

Map of the Keystone Pipeline | Image: Sen. Mike Johanns

The link between this intense political struggle and the drive to secure wilderness status for Beauty Mountain--and a lot of other places--was made clear when on the exact same day the administration backed away from its support for Keystone XL, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released a list of area he believed deserved wildland designation. Note the first two words in the official press release: "Beauty Mountain in California, the San Juan Islands of Washington, and Castle Peak in Colorado are among 18 backcountry areas in nine states that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar highlighted today as deserving protection by Congress as national conservation areas or wilderness areas."Chosen because these settings had already secured Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, (and perhaps not incidentally because many are in key 2012 battlegrounds) Salazar offered this ringing endorsement as a result of their across-the-aisle support:

"From President Theodore Roosevelt's bold steps to establish national parks, wildlife refuges and forests to President Obama signing the 2009 Public Lands bill into law in his first days in office, America has a proud bipartisan tradition of protecting the backcountry that matters most to hunters, fishermen, and our families."

That sounds good, but in truth Obama administration--like its predecessor--has been much more willing to sell leases for oil and gas production than to advocate for wildlife protection. More than any other executive branch, it has been pushing solar development on vast swaths of untrammeled desertlands.So it was left to BLM Director Bob Abbey to articulate a newfound balance that his agency will try to promote: "As we continue our push to responsibly expand oil, gas, coal, solar, wind, geothermal, and other resource development on public land, we also have a responsibility to expand the backcountry recreational and outdoor opportunities that generate billions of dollars in revenue for local economies across the West." That being the case, Abbey declared, "Resource development and resource protection go hand in hand and, in fact, are part of a proud bipartisan tradition on which I hope Congress will build."

The insistent refrain of bipartisanship, necessary language when the president's party does not control both houses of Congress, may help move some of these wilderness bills out of committee and on to the floor for a vote (but note this caveat in the official Interior Department report on "BLM Lands Deserving Protection": it "does not constitute a proposal for legislation or agency action.") Still, it might unfreeze the legislative process, and if it does so successfully, then the fight to protect Beauty Mountain may prove a watershed moment for the Obama administration.

Consequences on the ground could be as pivotal: the cross-county mountainous region finally will come under a unified management scheme, thereby heightening protections for the mountain's unique biodiversity, clean-water resources, and recreational opportunities--ticks, too.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The butterfly photo used on this post is by Flickr user NDomer73. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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