06/18/2007 03:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

No One Ever Got West on His Own

San Francisco, CA -- On Saturday night, Robert Redford was urging a group at dinner to throw their shoulders to the wheel behind the Senate candidacy of Mark Udall in Colorado. Redford was making the point that the myth of the West as place of "rugged individualists" who didn't work together was just that -- myth -- and that the West was actually settled by an intensely cooperative culture with a strong sense of community. In fact, the major reason for the development of a strong national government in the US was to settle the frontier. "No one," he concluded, "ever got West on his own."

The other half of the myth of the West is the idea that it was a society that took care of itself when it came to law and order. The reactionary right continues to cling to this image of the cowboy unfettered by rules, who protects his family with his own six-gun, not by relying on law and the sheriff. There is a reason for this -- the real destabilizing force in the Old West was not Jesse James, but brutal mining, timber, and ranching interests who, time and time again, violated, flouted and undercut federal laws passed to protect small settlers and common resources.

What distinguishes the Bush Administration is the degree to which the role of "outlaw" has passed from the likes of Exxon-Mobil and ASARCO to the federal government itself. The long string of Interior Department officials currently in legal trouble -- led by Steven Griles -- merely reflects a set of policies which the department's own Inspector General described as a systematic disregard for and bending of the law.

It has repeatedly fallen to federal judges to step in and remind the Bush Administration that the government is supposed to be on the side of the law, not above it. The most recent case involved protection of endangered species of salmon. The Bush Administration has proposed removing protections from these fish as long as they can be artificially and temporarily sustained by hatcheries. By that logic, as long as we can keep grizzly bears alive in zoos, we have no need to protect wild populations. But US District Judge John Coughenour recently slapped down this doctrine, ruling that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has as its "central purpose preserving and promoting self-sustaining natural populations. ... Species are to be protected in the context of their habitats, until they are self-sustaining without the interference of man. Artificial propagation is a temporary measure designed to bring a species to the point where the species no longer requires the protection" of the ESA. Any first-year student of environmental policy learns this fact, so it's stunning that it takes a lawsuit by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to get it confirmed.

Salmon are not the only wild beneficiaries of the federal court's insistence that the law means what it says. In Wyoming, US District Judge Clarence Brimmer, who originally threw out the Clinton-era Wild Forest Protection Rule, told the Forest Service that the courts and Congress had spoken, that the rule was the law of the land, and that his hands were legally tied; he could not block the rule from going into effect.

But no matter often the courts speak out, the administration continues its outlaw ways. The Bureau of Land Management's behavior with regards to a proposed mining lease on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens is a good illustration: As the Everett Herald concluded, the case shows how the BLM "appears to ignore the rules it doesn't like."

What happened is stunning. The Department of the Interior, using Land and Water Conservation funds, purchased the 217-acre site to add to the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Now BLM has turned around and issued a preliminary hardrock mineral lease of the site to Idaho General Mines. If the lease is finalized, and minerals produced, Idaho General will own the land. And, since it was purchased for the explicit purpose of preserving it in its natural state, it's hard to imagine a more flagrant violation of the intent of Congress. Senator Maria Cantwell has objected, but if her efforts don't prevail, I suspect we'll see this one back before a federal judge in the not-too-distant future.

In the real Old West, the government helped the judges out. Bush has turned the concept of law and order on its head.