Over the July 4th weekend, 500 angry rebels took up their shovels to repair a road leading to a wilderness area in the Jarbidge Mountains on the Nevada-Idaho border.
This modern-day tea-party in protest of the federal government's refusal to rebuild the road along a spawning stream for endangered bull trout attracted scores of national reporters and television cameras. Usually such media attention brings in the politicians like wolves to a wounded elk.
But what should have been the decisive battle in what Western Republicans have called for eight years "the War on the West," turned into a minor skirmish. The only western politicians on hand for the Shovel Brigade's shining moment were minor local candidates and third-party hopefuls seeking relevancy.
Republicans like Utah Rep. Jim Hansen and Idaho Congressman Helen Chenoweth-Hage still man the ramparts to defend ranchers, miners, loggers and private property rights. But increasingly, Western Republican leaders are sending signals to their natural resource industry supporters that the terms of the battle have changed.
They bitterly oppose President Clinton's initiative to protect 43 million acres of roadless national forest. And they howl about his use of the Antiquities Act to preserve millions of acres of western land as national monuments. But few of them suggest the lands in question don't deserve protection. No one has proposed a massive new program to build roads into remaining roadless areas.
I recently visited Elk City, Idaho, a mill town of about 400 people at the end of the road in the Nez Perce National Forest. Without the mill, this town is not going to become a tourist center. Its surrounding lodgepole pine forest is increasingly brown with beetle-killed timber just waiting for that dry August day when the winds will send a lightning-caused fire through town.
Years ago, political leaders like former Idaho Sens. James McClure and Frank Church assured the community it would have logging access to the 200,000-acre Meadow Creek roadless area on their eastern boundary. But the roads were never built, and now even Sen. Larry Craig has said they likely won't be, at least not anytime soon. In fact, Craig said, roads into roadless areas would be an exception rather than the rule even if the Clinton initiative he is fighting so fiercely is stopped.
Washington Sen. Slate Gorton told timber industry officials in his state earlier this year he won't be able to deliver to them the billions of board feet of public timber they got in the years before Clinton was elected. He'll be lucky if he can get them the level of harvest Clinton promised in his Northwest Forest Plan.
Gorton and his allies are shifting with the political winds. They haven't given up their fight to protect states' rights and private property rights. And they aren't turning their backs on the timber industry, ranchers and miners who still make up the core of their support.
But they know in the long run they need urban votes. The people who now drive the economies of their states are technology executives who know that open space, wild rivers and outdoor recreation are vital to their recruiting efforts.
This new reality has pushed Sen. Craig and others toward advocating local-collaborative management aimed at restoring the health of western public lands. They believe these projects will result in timber harvests and allow ranchers to remain on the land.
Shearer Lumber Co., the owners of the Elk City mill, has started a collaborative program on a piece of roaded forest near the town that may bear fruit. Even the Idaho Conservation League, the state's most powerful environmental group, is involved.
These days, Western Republicans would prefer to get their pictures taken releasing endangered sockeye salmon back into the wild than building a road that may kill bull trout. No matter how the election turns out in November, this shift in imagery portends a new era in Western politics. And it may mean that collaboration on natural resource issues will blossom no matter what party dominates in the future.
Rocky Barker is a contributor to writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is the environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman in Boise.