07/06/2007 02:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Land Politics: Progressives' Big Opportunity in the West

Tired and worn out from the difficult slog of a populist campaign in the red state of Montana, I penned three articles (in the Washington Monthly, the American Prospect and In These Times) in December of 2004 showing how the politics of property rights, hunter/angler access and energy development - let's call it Land Politics - has the potential to scramble the traditional Republican coalition in places like the Great American West, if progressives plot a course to advantage of the changing political topography. These articles were met with typically blank looks in Washington, until about 2005 when the New York Times essentially reprinted the articles in a "new" piece by Tim Egan. Now, three years later, we see the fissures that were mere tiny cracks in 2004 are becoming potentially wide chasms, replete with serious political opportunities. Considering the fact that many of the 97 out of 100 fastest growing counties in America that Bush won in 2004 are out here and face these issues, Land Politics could be the key to progressives fundamentally changing the national electoral map.

Here in Colorado, Land Politics (in the sense I'm talking about) has a lot to do with the conflict between those who own surface rights to land and those who own the mineral rights (aka. subsurface drilling/mining rights) to the same land. Typically, this pits people who live in houses versus oil/gas/mining companies that own the mineral rights to that land and thus - because of lax laws - are allowed to plant their giant oil drilling operations right in people's front yard or backyard.

Back in 2005, Republican legislators joined with energy industry lobbyists to kill legislation that would have forced oil and gas companies to pay more when they harm private property during energy exploration. They rejected the bill in the face of the Rocky Mountain News' expose on how land owners are often poorly compensated when oil/gas companies drill under their land - and how ordinary citizens' property rights are abused.

Now, today, the Greeley Tribune reports that Weld County is facing increasing friction between its residents and the oil industry over the exploitation of mineral rights:

"Most people who own rights to surface land don't own the rights to the oil, gas or other minerals beneath, which turns out to be a big problem, said Jana Easley, a city planner. Since the beginning of 2006, when Colorado law changed to allow more wells per parcel of land, 67 wells have been approved by Greeley. Officials say the new law has made for strained relations between landowners and mineral rights owners, especially near residential areas in places such as Greeley...There are 1,243 wells inside Greeley's long-range expected growth area, the area the city plans to annex within the next 20 years. Under Colorado law, land owners have to make reasonable accommodation for those who own the mineral rights under the land to extract the minerals. In addition, a Colorado law enacted at the end of 2005 allows eight oil and gas wells per 320 acres...Like most property owners, the city does not typically own the mineral rights on its land."

Remember, in this swing state of Colorado, Weld County is represented by fringe conservative Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R) and is a bedrock Republican stronghold, having delivered 63 percent of its vote to President Bush and 55 percent of its vote to Republican Senate candidate Pete Coors in 2004. But the friction between ordinary Republican-leaning voters/landowners there and the Republican Party elite's Big Money oil industry donors means great potential for Democrats if they have the guts to take the side of the former, whether with similar legislation that they pushed in 2005, or with new legislation to strengthen surface owners rights against energy company intrusion. This could be politically crucial, as both Colorado is up for grabs in the presidential election and Musgrave could be a top House target in 2008.

A similar dynamic is playing out in the Republican stronghold of Wyoming - another state in political flux due to the death of Republican Sen. Craig Thomas and the surprisingly strong candidacy of Democrat Gary Trauner in 2004. There, we find this Associated Press story today:

"Newly appointed U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R) says he would support buying back oil and gas leases to prevent further energy development in the Wyoming Range...Barrasso said he would support limiting development if property rights could be upheld. 'It would be nice if there was a way to buy back those leases or work in a way that respected those private property rights but still protected an area that needs to be protected long term,' he said...Barrasso has taken a similar stance on other environmental issues on which Thomas was working. Shortly before his death, Thomas introduced the Snake Headwaters Legacy Act of 2007. The act would protect 443 miles on 14 streams from water quality degradation and dam building."

Barrasso is not even close to an environmentalist, but he is a politician - and he is pretty clearly responding to the same sort of tensions between landowers and energy companies we see in Greeley and throughout the West. The question is how much of what he is supporting is rhetoric and how much is real? And more politically interesting, how will Wyoming Democrats use the issue and their stance as defenders of the little guy to continue their solid state legislative work driving a wedge between industry-allied Republican Party elites and the Republican voters who would like to see their property rights, tourist economy and landscape preserved/strengthened?

In Montana, while the surface rights vs. mineral rights politics are similar and where there is growing dissatisfaction with oil/gas companies' encroachment on wildlife habitats, the other issue politically opportune for progressives is the conflict over stream and public land access, as I described in my 2004 Washington Monthly article. Montana's constitution deems stream beds public land, and thus allows the public to be within the high-water mark of any stream, even if it runs through private land. Superwealthy private landowners - many who live out of state - hate the stream access law, and have waged a vicious campaign to try to slowly chip away at hunters'/anglers' stream access, to the point where some have even tried to essentially privatize the Ruby River.

Montana Republican Party elites have long taken the side of wealthy out of state landowners in these disputes, pitting themselves against often conservative-leaning outdoorsmen. And this past year, Democrats smartly used the legislative session to highlight this split in the conservative coalition. With Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) leading the charge, Democrats authored a bill to strengthen stream access laws, and the Montana GOP responded by publicly opposing it - an insult to hunters and anglers that garnered major headlines throughout the state. This split - and Democrats' courage in taking the side of the little guy - has been one of the key ways Democrats in Montana have branded a new populism and won recent elections.

To be sure, Land Politics is delicate, especially when it comes to energy. Like it or not, in the Great American West oil, gas, coal and other mineral deposits are synonymous in blue-collar voters' minds with jobs and wages. And Republicans - up until now - have been able to successfully turn "environmentalist" into a cuss word in many places by "jobs and wages!" anytime progressives have considered the populist route on Land Politics. Their ability to do this was one of the key ways they converted "Reagan Democrats" into reflexive Republicans, and turned this region from a progressive populist bastion of Mike Mansfield and Frank Church to the Republican stronghold of Wayne Allard and Larry Craig.

But maybe because of high gas prices, or maybe because of something else, the political topography seems to be changing. And whether it's Schweitzer on stream access in Montana, or Rep. Mark Udall (D) on both hunters" rights and oil drilling in Colorado, a new generation of populist Democrats are figuring out how to use these opportunities for both political and progressive policy initiatives that the public now better understands do not automatically fall into the past's Spotted Owl paradigm of "jobs vs. the environment."

I want to reiterate that last point because it's so important: Land Politics is a set of issues where good politics can be great policy that does not endanger jobs. The truth is, the most effective form of public policy populism is that which targets captive interests - those industries that cannot realistically pull the old post-NAFTA threat to ship out in the face of new laws, because what they do is inherently tied to geography.

Natural resources are, by definition, captive - and with energy prices so high, the profit-making potential of all deposits are so great that even if one company left a state in the face of new land protections, another would likely come right in. Same thing with stream/public lands issues. The asset in question with wealthy private landowners - their land - is captive. They can't "move" in the face of enhanced stream/public lands access laws - because their land can't be moved. That means, in short, the public and our elected officials have a lot of leverage in dealing with captive industries - if they have the guts in state legislatures and in Congress to stand up to Big Money interests and use that leverage for the common good.

Originally posted at Working Assets