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The epitaph for the Western way of life has been written more times than Met Johnson cares to remember.

"I think probably every newspaper in the country has done a story on how the Old West is disappearing, how the urban West (with) its technology jobs is replacing the cowboys and miners and timber people," Johnson said. "We're here to say we're not about to give up fighting for our way of life, and if you think we are dead or dying, you are mistaken."The "we" in this case is the 4,100-member Western States Coalition, a group of county commissioners, state legislators and natural resource industry types from virtually all Western states and a smattering of Southern and Eastern states who are committed to preserve and revive traditional industries like cattle ranching, mining and timber.

And there's more than just rhetoric to the Western States Coalition these days. Some 250 mem-bers of the 4,100-strong coalition concluded a two-day summit at the Salt Lake Hilton Saturday with a series of "how-to" sessions geared specifically at reclaiming their economic heritage.

Their strategies are multifaceted. Things like requiring federal land managers to include state and county land managers as coequal partners in the planning decisions on public lands. Things like lawsuits directed at bureaucrats who violate the provisions of their own laws and regulations.

Things like conducting public education campaigns to win the hearts of urban citizens who have lost sight of the fact that the beef on their dinner tables comes from cattle grazed on the public ranges and that the lumber to build their homes comes from national forests.

"It is a fact of life land issues in the largely uninhabited West are made by people in the inhabited East, and we have not done a good job making our case to them (Easterners)," said former Speaker of the Utah House Rob Bishop, who co-founded the coalition with Johnson.

One participant described the battle over Western lands as a holy war where both sides - the local residents who depend on natural resources for jobs and the conservationists who fight for preservation of wilderness qualities - believe zealously in the justness of their cause.

Coalition members see it as a holy war to preserve not only their traditional way of life, but as a war against what they see as radical environmental extremism that espouses a theology that man is inherently evil and must be relegated to a position in the natural ecosystem in which he is no greater than any other species.

Their own theology is rooted in Christian ideals, and it was not uncommon during the summit to hear speakers make their political points with Biblical analogy. God, they say, gave the earth to man, and "man being smarter has the ability to restore it (nature) and manage it better than any other player," Bishop said.

"The foolish servant was the one who locked away his talent," Bishop said, paraphrasing the New Testament parable of the talents. "The wise servant was the one who did something with it." Consequently, humans have a responsibility to do something with the Earth, not to lock it away.

But coalition members say environmental groups and their allies in the Department of the Interior have a lock-it-away mentality that inhibits the ability of man to harvest timber, extract minerals or graze cattle. And they agree that for the past 20 years the environmental advocates won the battle for the hearts of the American public by convincing people that these economic activities are evil.

The tone of the seventh Western State Coalition was clearly on action (although there was still plenty of angry anti-federal-government rhetoric to go around). One speaker after another extolled the virtues of cooperation and participation in the public process, promising political windfalls if varied interests will stand together for a greater good.

"When we are right on an issue, we need to fight together," said Speaker of the Alaska House Gail Phillips. "Standing together we are far mightier than standing alone."

But standing together means more than organized protests and letters to the editor. It means states and counties can control their own destinies through more effective participation in the existing process.

New Mexico Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley described how that state used little-known provisions in federal environmental laws to demand - and get - equal footing with the Bureau of Land Management regarding management decisions on federal lands. By joint agreement, New Mexico now conducts all inspections and enforcement activities related to oil and gas leases on federal lands. They are now looking at doing the same thing for mining.

"It's about getting on the inside," Bradley said. "Learn the system and let's get in the system."

Under definitions of "cooperating agencies" found in the federal law, states and counties have specific authority to be recognized as equal partners with federal land managers. "But guess what? The Sierra Club does not qualify as a cooperating agency," Bradley said.

Eureka County, Nev., is taking a somewhat different tack. County authorities have hired a full-time professional resource manager in anticipation of the county assuming all federal land management responsibilities there. And they hired Mike Baughman, a professional researcher and president of Intertech Services Corp., to demonstrate how state and county governments could provide the same services at considerably less cost than the BLM.

"It is a new paradigm for public land management," Baughman said. "States certainly could get the job done and for a whole lot less money. There is no question that states and counties can do a better job of managing these public lands."

Just rhetoric? Hardly. Baughman's research of land management costs in several Western states, including Utah, demonstrates that states generated $9.48 per acre from state lands that were indistinguishable from adjoining federal lands that generated only 22 cents per acre. State management also produced $355,100 profit for each full-time employee, while federal land management resulted in a loss of $51,751 for each full-time employee.

Baughman said Congress will eventually pass a balanced-budget amendment that will force them to cut spending. "Faced with cutting social programs and managing public lands, the social programs will prevail," he said. And states and counties that have done the groundwork to take over management responsibilities will then control their destinies.

In Utah, the tack in recent months has been litigation. The Western States Coalition has filed a lawsuit challenging President Clinton's designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And the state won a huge victory Friday when a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the Department of Interior's re-inventory of potential wilderness lands.

"It was a small victory but a significant one," said Ted Stewart, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. "It says, `you (Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt) have to abide by the law. The West is not a political football.' "

And as lawsuits are demonstrating across the nation, the enforcement of environmental policy is depriving people of fundamental constitutional rights, and there is a growing fear of government tyranny in the pursuit of environmental protection.

"American people are discovering they were deceived (by environmental activists)," said Perry Pendly of the Western States Legal Foundation. "They see that all of these crazy environmental laws have a price tag on them . . . that environmental policies are no longer feel-good and free."

The Western States Coalition has also embarked upon a more subtle strategy, one in which they borrowed a page from their environmentalist adversaries. Much as environmental groups appropriated the word "conservationist" from natural resource users generations ago, the coalition is now promulgating a "new environmentalism" in which responsible users of natural resources are described as the true environmentalists.

That philosophy, repeated by numerous summit speakers, is embodied in a paragraph of a letter written to the president that refers to "environment and people in balance, an ethic based on hope rather than fear, solution rather than conflict, education rather than litigation, science rather than emotion and on employing human and natural resources rather than negating them."

It is an ideal that, for now, remains elusive for summit participants. There was plenty of fear mongering, plenty of rhetoric designed to engender conflict, and plenty of talk about lawsuits, injunctions and restraining orders. Scientific research that did not support their agenda was casually dismissed and sometimes ridiculed.

Johnson does not deny that, nor does he apologize. These people have exceptionally strong beliefs and a passion to express them, he said. The issue becomes how to harness that energy into specific strategies that will produce changes to land management policies.

Changes that recognize the moral values of traditional Western economies.