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It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon in Washington, D.C., and there’s a wreck just ahead on the Beltway. “Hang on a second, I gotta pull over for this,” Congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) tells the reporter in Nevada. “Don’t worry, it’s hands free.”

Calling from his cell phone while dodging wrecks on the freeway nominates Shays as at least among the most unusual of federal lawmakers, most of whom seldom even return calls from the safety of their office.

But that’s Shays, the Bull Moose eastern Republican with a reputation of wanting to save the West from itself, whether westerners fully understand it or not.

“It’s my land, that’s why,” he says in a way that even over a traffic-dodging cell phone sounds genuinely sincere. “I mean, it’s owned by the federal government, and I just think we all should rejoice in having such a beautiful land that we all can enjoy.” Indeed, he confides, he wishes there could be found more such “federal land” in the East to match the western grandeur.

Short of that, however, the eight-term congressman from one of the richest districts in the United States has attached his name to legislation that many western observers believe would amount to the first major chunk in a green-extremist plan to set aside as much as a third of the nation as wilderness corridors off-limits to nearly all human use.

Shays’ House Resolution 488, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, would take up great swaths of Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming as first components of that wilderness plan. So far, the measure is stalled in Congress, lacking any serious support.

This March, however, Shays added to that with an announcement that he would sponsor legislation on behalf of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign to buy out grazing permits on federal lands at an inducing price of $175 per AUM (animal unit month).

The congressman backed off introducing that legislation a couple of weeks later, saying he was waiting for open support from some other “western representatives” willing to sign on to the cow-killer scheme backed by Idaho-based Jon Marvel’s Western Watersheds Project.

“I can tell you that when I was out in Idaho not long ago, I met with several ranchers who were delighted at the prospect [of selling for those prices],” says Shays.

“Those, I assume, would be friends of Mr. Marvel’s,” the reporter replies. “You should know there are many others who don’t agree.”

“Well, yeah. Probably,” Shays agrees. “I heard later it might complicate things for some of the ranchers using their own land. That was another reason I wanted to wait.”

Shays, lobbied by Andy Kerr’s and Jon Marvel’s National Public Lands Grazing Campaign for that move, and by the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies for his Wildlands Project legislation, is a natural target for environmentalists who only need check the 85-to-95 percent favorable rating assigned the Connecticut Republican by the League of Conservation Voters for his environmental stance.

Shays has been a champion of environmental issues as near to home as Long Island Sound and the Stratford Great Marsh and as expansive as the Clean Water Act and protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but the great Northwest appears to occupy a special place in his heart.

“In 1975, my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Yellowstone and Jackson Hole and Glacier National Park,” he says. “I remember it was so beautiful that at one point my wife saw a phone booth near the road and demanded we stop. ‘Why?’ I said, and she said she wanted to call home and tell them we weren’t coming back.”

More recently, he recalls that he spent “four days generally flying over the area. It’s still so beautiful—all those trees and landscape, I want everybody to love it the way I do.”

That means, he says, that he will continue to oppose roads on Forest Service land, and certainly will reject resumption of logging, but he fully supports other uses for the wild regions, such as “opportunities for people to hunt and fish and sleep there…. What we would do is provide some connections for the wildlife to migrate and flourish.”

There might be even grizzly-free places in the West where the gentleman from Connecticut would not quite fit in; but, even if he is a dude, he is still no fool. “I know there are people who are mad at me,” he says. “I don’t exactly walk in their moccasins when it comes to federal land, but times are changing.

“It’s my land, and theirs too. What we need is a dialogue on this whole thing.”

Andy Kerr and the Public Lands Grazing Campaign, who figure money talks first, had no immediate comment on Shays’ decision to back down on introducing the legislation.

Summer 2003 Contents | Git Home!

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