The War For The West

The West has always been a boundless proving ground for the best and worst of the American impulse. Waves of white settlers, lured by the promise of free land, came to test their force of will and character against the frontier. They drained the swamps. They irrigated the deserts. They fenced the range. Those who didn't farm survived by extracting the land's raw wealth. Ranchers raised cattle and sheep. Miners punctured mountainsides in search of gold, silver and copper. Loggers tore hungrily into the dense old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Later, thirsty new Western cities diverted the rivers with massive dams. They defied the realities of the desert geography. And they thought it would all last forever.

The striving spawned countless fortunes-many for companies back east. Those who got in the way-Native Americans with original claims to the land-were pushed aside, or worse. The federal government encouraged the plunder with come-and-get-it policies that all but handed stretches of the wilderness to extractive industries. Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the frontier closed in 1893, but for generations of Americans belief in the idea of an inexhaustible West remained unshaken.

Now that faith is facing its ultimate test. Waves of change are turning what remains of the wilderness into a political and cultural battlefield. A growing constituency of new Westerners who covet the land for its natural beauty and recreational value are challenging the dominance of traditional users who have come to regard it as their own. In Washington, legislation that would curtail old entitlements for miners and ranchers is attracting serious support. The delta smelt, the Snake River salmon and the desert tortoise have joined the northern spotted owl as focal points in a bitter debate weighing commerce against conservation. Native American tribes are claiming historic water rights that could stretch oversubscribed western rivers even thinner. "It is a fight over who controls the West," says Johanna Wald, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The battle lines are not simply drawn. They run through mountain towns where longtime residents are divided over the price of tourism. Ranchers and environmentalists are finding unlikely common cause against miners who drench the soil in cyanide to retrieve gold. Industry-friendly federal agencies that administer Western lands are being rocked from within by a new generation of environmentally conscious administrators. This week a high-ranking U.S. Forest Service official will testify before a House committee investigating charges that government forest managers are under political pressure to deliver fat timber harvests to private industry.

The biggest fight may come next year, when Congress is scheduled to debate reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. Despite George Bush's attempts to curry favor with environmentalists-he visited the Grand Canyon last week-the administration is expected to try to soften the 1973 law, which protects more than 600 species from extinction. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan has charged that the law has been used to block resource development rather than protect animal life. Conservationists expect a struggle to keep the law intact.

Under the surface of the turmoil is the West's attempt to free itself from a legacy in which myth and reality have always entangled. The Spanish came in the 16th century looking for gold-paved streets. Nineteenth-century settlers believed that sparse rainfall would increase by plowing the land. Modern ranchers cling to the Marlboro-man image of indefatigable individualism, then howl when federal subsidies are threatened. "The West is in a phase of appropriately self-conscious neurosis," says Patricia Limerick, professor of history at the University of Colorado.

Fueling the conflict is the rise of the urban West. Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and other metropolitan areas are producing more environmentally and recreationally minded residents than ever before. As popular national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone become overcrowded, Westerners are seeking out rarely used public lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which controls more than 270 million acres spread over 11 Western states, recorded 72 million visits in 1990, 15 million more than in 1988. Federal law requires the BLM to operate under the doctrine of "multiple use," balancing the competing interests of industry, recreation and wildlife. But critics say industry has enjoyed the upper hand. "Multiple use worked when the West was a tremendously underpopulated place," says former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt. "But now the empty spaces are filling up."

It means that affluent vacationers and second-home owners are importing new, frequently unwelcome, standards of environmental correctness to the wilderness. Western politics are shifting as well. Grass-roots resistance to new resource-development projects has made it difficult for industry lobbyists to present a united front. "They'd come to Washington and say, 'Everybody in Cowabunga County supports this dam, supports the leasing of this land, supports the cutting of these trees,' and they were right," says Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Interior Committee. "Now, Cowabunga County is next to Denver, and people from Denver go out there to fly-fish. "

Those who make their living from the land are mounting their own counterattack. People for the West, a campaign launched by the Western States Public Lands Coalition, has established nearly 100 community groups to spread a pro-industry message. Many bristle at environmentalists who they say won't recognize the rights of those who mine and grow much of what the country consumes. The animosity is as much theological as it is political and economic. Many regard the harvesting of the land's resources as a calling with roots deep in Judeo-Christian tradition. Others believe they know more than the tenderfoots. Howard Blair, 64, a rancher in California's east Mojave Desert, is baffled by those seeking to protect the area by making it a national park. "This country has been grazed for 125 years. The dry years change it, and the wet years change it back. If we've been doing such a bad job, then how come it's good enough to be a national park?"

Six dispatches from a war for the soul of the American West:

John Falen works to seasonal rhythms that have driven generations of stockmen in northern Nevada. In winter he keeps his 4,000 head of cattle in the lowlands of the Quinn River Valley. By spring his cowboys are pushing the herd into the lower hills, where calves are branded, castrated and vaccinated. The cattle summer in the high country, fattening up on grass before trucking to fall market. The setbacks are the same as they were for Falen's predecessors: drought, late-spring blizzards, fluctuating beef prices. But Falen never wanted any other life. Until last spring, he was a broad-shouldered study in job satisfaction.

That was when he felt the crack of a new whip in the West. It came in the form of the Lahontan cutthroat trout, which once flourished in the region's streams. Now an endangered species, the trout makes one of its last homes in three creeks on summer pasture Falen leases from the BLM. On May 30, the agency barred his livestock from the land, charging that they had damaged creek banks by loosening soil, shrouding the Lahontan's eggs in silt. Falen agreed to fence off the creeks. The agency said it would take two years to approve the design. For now, he's lost more than half the summer range on the 290,000 acres he's leased from the BLM since 1977. He's spitting mad. "I never figured I'd be fighting my own government to defend my way of life," he says.

Falen's way of life is just as endangered as the Lahontan trout, A growing chorus of critics brand ranchers as enemies of the environment. They charge that years of overgrazing have eroded soil, polluted water and denuded the range of vegetation. A 1990 report sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency found parts of the West to be in the worst condition in history. Toxic chemicals used by ranchers to kill coyotes that prey on their livestock may also have destroyed hundreds of bald and golden eagles, according to an undercover investigation revealed earlier this month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The image of the land-sensitive cowboy is just a lie. They've assaulted the entire system of nature," says James Fish, founder of the Public Lands Action Network, a New Mexico organization working to ban livestock from the range.

Environmentalists say taxpayers unwittingly have underwritten the damage. While most ranchers own their land, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service lease more than 31,000 allotments at approximately one quarter the market rate. Critics call the subsidy "cowboy welfare" for ranchers who make only a marginal contribution to the domestic beef industry. By some estimates, only 2 percent of the nation's beef is raised on public lands.

So how have ranchers managed to maintain their privileged status? One reason is the aura of the cowboy myth, which still plays in Washington. "They look great, coming [into committee hearings] wearing boots, silver buckles and hats. They're very entertaining and very forceful," says David Alberswerth, public-lands director of the National Wildlife Federation. That aura worked its magic again on the Senate last week when it defeated a bill that would have raised grazing fees by as much as 250 percent. The House passed a similar bill in June,

Ranchers argue that livestock are a boon to the land. Their waste fertilizes the soil, their browsing prunes plants. The low public-grazing fees are no giveaway, stockmen say. They don't reflect costs for fencing, roads and water-amenities private landowners provide. Others suggest that the grazing issue is simply a way for animal-rights activists to attack the beef, lamb and wool industries. They say that their opponents devalue their impact on the domestic beef industry by counting dairy cows that are not shipped to market. Oregon State University economist Frederick Obermiller says that approximately 40 percent-not 2 percent-of the national beef-cow inventory spends time on public grazing land.

The debate has created new tensions on public lands that stockmen had grown to regard as their own. Bumper stickers like CATTLE FREE BY '93 and NO MOO IN '92 are calling cards for radical environmental groups. Even once lax federal agencies like the BLM have become more aggressive. When Utah rancher Jim Wilcox didn't comply with a 1989 order to move his cattle from a remote area of his Green River ranch, BLM officers shot 17 head, leaving them to rot.

To fight back, ranchers are riding into new territory: spin control. The Western Livestock Producers Alliance hired a public-relations firm in July to promote a two-day press tour of Utah and Nevada ranches. At this summer's annual meeting of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association in Ft. Collins, a group of sunburned ranchers held a "conflict resolution" workshop.

Falen is appealing the BLM order. He may win his legal battle, but not the larger war, While public lands aren't likely to be cattle-free by 1993, they won't be the exclusive domain of traditional users like the stockman either. Survival will depend on negotiating with others who want their piece of the West. Says Reeves Brown, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association: "Our salvation lies just as much in common sense as it does in the romance of the American cowboy."

From the air, stretches of the Idaho panhandle resemble the barren remains of a laboratory dissection. Buzz saws have peeled back the lush pine canopies, leaving stark swaths of "clear-cut" hillside. Logging roads, part of a national network nine times the length of the interstate highway system, wind through the blackened stumps and brush. Timber is king in northern Idaho, where 45 percent of the economy hinges on the cutting and milling of trees.

That makes the Mallard-Larkins roadless area a potential jewel in the crown. Its 260,000 acres of glacial lakes and elk sanctuaries are much the way Lewis and Clark found them when they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains in 1805. The industry wants the U.S. Forest Service to open the region's cedar, hemlock and western spruce for logging. Environmentalists want Congress to designate it a wilderness, sealing it from industry. The dispute is 25 years old, but the stakes have never been higher. A federal proposal to reduce harvests in old-growth forests in Washington and Oregon to protect spotted-owl habitats makes Mallard-Larkins even more desirable to the industry. "This is the end of the timber frontier," says Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane forest activist.

No wilderness fights are more emotionally charged than those over timber. None place the competing values of profit motive and environmental protection in sharper relief. None have been more impervious to compromise than Mallard-Larkins. St. Maries, a timber town of 2,794 about 80 miles from the roadless area, reflects the angry stalemate. Last year Osborn and three others derided as environmentalists were hanged in effigy in a supermarket parking lot.

The timber industry, which buys an estimated 35 percent of its Northwest harvest from national forests, says it needs more to maintain mill production. Conservationists argue that fewer Forest Service trees are not the problem. From 1979 to 1989, timber employment in the Northwest fell 19 percent, largely due to automation and Canadian imports, not environmental initiatives. Mallard-Larkins, they say, is a quick fix for an industry in the throes of restructuring. Nor do wilderness advocates apologize for the fact that few Americans will ever enjoy the glories of Mallard-Larkins's back country. Wilderness areas are exactly that--no roads, no picnic tables, no RV hookups-a refuge for the rugged elite. "It's not a shopping mall, it's a wilderness, " says John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association.

That kind of analysis enrages loggers, who fear activists will eventually relegate every acre of forest to splendid uselessness. "I'm just a person trying to make a living just like anyone else in this country," says Kelly Ragan of St. Maries. Others resent a consumer culture that condemns them yet craves wood. "We live in a nation that wipes its [nose] with its forests," says one logger.

The industry says new "low impact" forestry techniques will minimize unsightly clear-cutting. Plum Creek Timber Co., a Washington company with Idaho holdings, says clear-cutting now comprises less than 5 percent of its annual harvest in the state. Replanting has increased to 18 million new trees a year-- an investment the industry says will pay off if more public land is opened to tide it through. But how much more? And for how long? It takes as many as 80 years for Idaho trees to mature.

There's another reason the industry wants more timber from public land: it's cheap. When the Forest Service sells timber, it picks up road-construction costs and administrative expenses normally borne by companies when they cut on private land. It also provides the timber to the industry at "below cost." Environmental groups contend that the taxpayers lose their shirts in the process. A study by the Wilderness Society concluded that 98 of the Forest Service's 120 administrative units lost a total of $256.8 million in the timber business last year. The Forest Service disputes the findings, insisting that the loss is "only" $48 million. But the agency's traditional solicitude toward the timber industry is starting to cause internal unrest. Forest Service employees report clashes between conservation-oriented biologists and older hands accustomed to delivering "the cut." Senior managers are rethinking the agency's mission as well. Even some industry leaders question the wisdom of government largesse that generates bad PR and keeps wood prices artificially low. Says Walter Minnick, president of TJ International in Boise: "[Subsidies] create a fat boy sitting on a fence just waiting to be knocked flat."

Even if Idahoans come to terms with Mallard-Larkins, Congress may not. Environmental and industry interests forged an unprecedented agreement on logging in Montana's Kootenai and Lolo national forests. But hard-liners on both sides delayed approval. Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus says the Supreme Court may decide the fate of Idaho's forests with "map and crayon." If so, everyone may wish they had been more flexible.

For at least 10,000 years, it was an article of faith among the tribes of the Columbia River Basin: that each spring millions of Pacific salmon would scale upstream to their freshwater spawning grounds. The fish were a source of sustenance, commerce and spirit. "We are all brothers and sisters with the fish," says Kathleen Wilson Gordon of the Cayuse-Walla Walla tribe. Native Americans thought their bounty was secured by an 1855 treaty with the United States guaranteeing fishing rights.

But white farmers arrived from the East with their own article of faith: that there would always be water-even in the deserts of eastern Oregon and Washington. The government obliged, starting at the turn of the century, with an extraordinary network of dams up and down the Columbia and Snake rivers. Their construction created the modern Northwest, irrigating farmland and nurturing industry with cheap hydroelectric power. For the salmon, it meant running a gantlet of concrete. The massive Grand Coulee was built without "fish ladders," guideways to help them muscle upstream from the ocean. Other dams had ladders, but they were inadequate. Juvenile fish dependent on rushing water to get downriver and out to the ocean languished in stagnant pools or were chewed up by turbines. In about 200 years, the annual salmon count has gone from as many as 16 million to about 2.8 million. "It was the price of stupidity, not the price of progress," says Idaho environmentalist Ed Chaney.

Now the battle over salmon is reaching a new and critical stage. Under pressure from Native Americans and environmentalists, the Commerce Department is studying a proposal to place three annual migrations, or runs, of salmon under the protection the Endangered Species Act. Opponents say protecting the fish could scramble the region's economy. Water used to spin turbines would be reallocated to flush fish past the dams downriver to the Pacific, a change that could increase electric rates by as much as 30 percent. Barge traffic that hauls $11.6 billion a year in commodities could be crippled during the two-month migration season.

River interests say there's no solid scientific evidence that drawing down the dams would save the salmon. Such a solution wouldn't halt the ravages of industrial pollution, pull back the drift nets of commercial fishermen or send home loggers who fill streams with sediment. Others contend that using the Endangered Species Act to protect the salmon would establish a dangerous precedent. Seattle biologist Frank Haw says the salmon proposed for listing-the Snake River sockeye, fall chinook and spring and summer chinook-- are not distinct species. "If the same standards are used in other animals... I would see utter chaos," Haw says.

Some predictions smack of a doomsday scenario, but a rate increase wouldn't be catastrophic. Customers of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the region's electric wholesaler, enjoy bills two thirds lower than the national average. Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus says higher rates could be avoided if the BPA stopped selling power to other clients. "They peddle it to California to heat hot tubs and turn the lights on in Disneyland," he says.

Environmentalists say their efforts come after trying to obtain voluntary cooperation from other interests. Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield recently held a "Salmon Summit" to little result. "We've been trying to save the salmon for the last 10 years," says Michael Blumm of Portland's Lewis & Clark Law School. "We've had our chance and we haven't done it."

Still, reconciliation is possible. Farmers and Native Americans in northeastern Oregon have agreed on a plan to restore salmon to the Umatilla River, which dries up in summer because of agricultural diversions. The $43 million project will draw water from the larger Columbia. "We had to find the common enemy," says Hadley Akins, executive director of the Umatilla River Basin Project. "We were all the enemy of the government bureaucracy who had given away this water twice."

Boston developer Mory Bergmeyer considered himself a model of environmental correctness. He recycled. He wrote checks to the Sierra Club and Save the Whales. His renovations of old harborfront buildings were executed with expense-be-damned attention to detail. When he moved to northwest Wyoming four years ago with his wife, Carol, to run a small, dowdy ski resort overlooking the Teton Valley, he had big ideas. He envisioned an Italian-style village of narrow, winding streets lined with restaurants and condos. The new Grand Targhee Resort would serve 250,000 skiers a year-twice its current capacity.

But Bergmeyer's neighbors think Italian villages belong in Tuscany, not the Teton Valley, where haute cuisine is the Spud Drive-In. A fiercely determined coalition of Mormon farmers and sheepherders and environmentalists managed to block the Targhee expansion in court. They say Bergmeyer and other rich arrivistes carry a form of mountain madness that transforms quiet towns like Vail, Telluride and Santa Fe. Residents have watched as the recreation economy has "Aspenized" Jackson Hole, 42 miles to the east, turning it into a condo-and-cappuccino nightmare.

The explosive growth has swallowed family ranches and farms. Steep housing costs have made commuters of some Jackson residents, who now drive to work from outlying towns. Farmer Lorin Wilson says an expanded Targhee will eclipse a way of life he wants his grandchildren to experience. "It's not the kind of industry that brings families [into] a community," he says. Michael Whitfield, a biologist and member of Citizens for Teton Valley, a group advocating limited growth, bluntly predicts that Bergmeyer could render the valley "a cardboard Disneyland."

Not everyone thinks a little Disney would be a bad thing. Towns with economies tethered to the boom-and-bust cycles of traditional industries are hustling for more dependable tourist dollars. Moab, Utah, a desert mining roost, is now a haven for mountain bikers. Hood River, Ore., a timber town, has become a windsurfing wonderland. Beautiful as the valley may be, its sheep herds and barley fields haven't kept young Mormons from packing off to Denver or Salt Lake City in search of work. Without Targhee's expansion some fear the region will continue to lose sons and daughters. "Did you ever try to fill a child's stomach with tranquillity--or esthetics for that matter?" asks Mormon rancher Boyd Moulton, in a letter to the Teton Valley News.

Bergmeyer's supporters say some of his opponents are themselves well-heeled newcomers who can ignore the extra $3 million in revenue they estimate an expanded resort would generate. "They want to lock up the valley and make it a private resort," says restaurateur Chuck Irwin.

Targhee's opponents are so sensitive about such charges that they offer an information sheet emphasizing the long residency of their members. They say minimum-wage resort jobs won't make up for the valley's lost independence. Others argue that normal patterns of economic growth shouldn't apply. "This is the last of one of the great places on the face of the earth. Business doesn't run as usual here," says Louisa Willcox, director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a regional watchdog group.

The big gun in the arsenal of the Bergmeyers' antagonists is the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the government to study the impact of development proposals for public lands. Carol Bergmeyer owns Targhee but leases the land from the U.S. Forest Service. Needing title to finance expansion, the Bergmeyers proposed buying 700 privately held acres on the south fork of Idaho's Snake River-a prime bald eagle habitat-and giving it to the Forest Service in exchange for the Targhee site.

Environmentalists first supported the swap, then balked, citing the unexamined effects of the expansion on water, air and wildlife. They also feared that a private enclave on Forest Service land next to Grand Teton National Park would set a bad precedent. And the economics seemed dubious. A Forest Service consultant estimates that Targhee would attract only half the tourists projected by Bergmeyer. So far, his opponents have won in court. But more legal action could follow.

Bergmeyer is bitter. He believes his intentions have been twisted by people posing as saviors of the land. "I don't like to call them environmentalists." His opponents aren't gloating. They know lawsuits won't immunize the Teton Valley from growth. Those clamoring for newcomers, laments Whitfield, are as benighted as the Shoshone and Bannock Indians who welcomed his Mormon ancestors, unaware that white settlers would change their lives forever. "They didn't realize there were so many of us."

The first gold rush in the Castle Mountains of California's east Mojave Desert was as short as it was rapacious. It began in 1907 and ended three years later, leaving the hillside pocked with abandoned claims. The gold was still there, but beyond easy reach. Now miners are returning-not with picks and shovels but with earth movers and chemicals. Next year Viceroy Gold Corp. of Las Vegas will begin winnowing multi-ton mouthfuls of ore from rock and drenching them in cyanide, drawing out specks of gold in a process called "heap leaching." The method is an old one, but with gold hovering at $350 per ounce, it could generate big profits. Viceroy estimates that in 10 years it can pluck 800,000 ounces of gold from 25 million tons of ore.

Viceroy's desert enterprise will be especially lucrative because it won't owe the federal government a dime in royalties. Washington gets money from companies that extract oil, coal and gas from public lands. But miners of gold and other hard minerals operate under an 1872 law as antiquated as a prospector's pan. Anyone can file a claim and mine it for next to nothing. The freebie costs the government an estimated $880 million a year in lost royalties, reclamation costs and land giveaways.

You don't need to strike gold to get rich. Claimants who invest at least $100 a year can buy sites for as little as $2.50 an acre and resell them. A General Accounting Office (GAO) study says the federal government has sold at least $47 million worth of public land to "miners" for $4,500. Some sites are now vacation homes. In California's Klamath National Forest, according to the GAO, some claims were used to grow marijuana. "The biggest seam still going on in America," says Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers, sponsor of a bill to establish royalties and tighten regulations.

Miners say they already pay plenty to the government-in corporate taxes and in the cost of complying with clean-air-and-water laws. "The mining law gives people an invitation to go and find minerals," says Keith Knoblock, vice president of the American Mining Congress. Critics say the law is an invitation to pollute. "There's a mythology that miners have a divine right to the land," says Phil Hocker, president of the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington group trying to change the law. Lax regulation, high gold prices and heap leaching are fueling a new rush. Ounces recovered with cyanide increased nearly 6,000 percent from 1979 to 1989-from 60,000 to 3.4 million. The ventures are also leaving behind new pockets of unreclaimed waste.

Mining is just one of the pressures on the 1.5 million-acre east Mojave, home to the desert tortoise and dozens of other vulnerable species. Motorcycle and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts savor the wide expanses. Suburban sprawl from California is bringing civilization closer. In 1986 Sen. Alan Cranston introduced the California Desert Protection Act, which would make the east Mojave a national park. It would grandfather existing mining claims but ban new ones.

But Cranston's desert shield is nowhere near passage, and activists want to limit new damage. Viceroy agreed to concessions, including setting up a $2 million fund for purchasing or reclaiming land anywhere in the east Mojave. Still, the new gold rush will leave new historic scars. Says Harold Linder, a consulting geologist for Viceroy: "No question that 1 00 years from now you'll be able to tell a mine was there. There will be a big hole in the ground. " Many hope it will be the last to mar the east Mojave's austere beauty.

Compared to big Western rivers like the Columbia or the Colorado, the San Juan is a scrawny kid brother of a waterway. The same goes for the Animas, its tributary, and the La Plata, a muddy bottom that fills up only for a few months during the spring snow melt. But in bone-dry New Mexico-and the rest of the West-there's no such thing as an extra drop of water. As the puny trio slog through the state's northwest corner, they provide five eighths of New Mexico's usable water.

They are also at the center of a 50-year struggle that is emblematic of how water both defines the West and divides it against itself-. city versus ranch, farmer versus sportsman, tribe versus tribe, government agency versus agency. Each constituency strives to manipulate a massive code of laws, treaties and interstate compacts that accounts for each gallon. They do so knowing that despite centuries of human habitation and development, the West is primarily a desert, replete with relics of cultures that failed when water slipped from their grasp. "Water in the West is life. Easterners have a hard time understanding that, they have so much," says Tommy Bolack, a rancher near Farmington. "But this is harsh country. It can be very unforgiving."

The Animas-La Plata project is designed to make some of that land more livable. It would divert water from the Animas to irrigate 70,000 acres of arid farmland, generate hydroelectric power to Farmington and provide drinking and industrial water for communities in the region. Part of the diversion would go to the Southern Ute and Mountain Ute tribes of southern Colorado to settle longstanding water-rights claims. Like most Western water projects, it spent decades on the drawing board. It was conceived in the 1930s but didn't win federal approval until 1968.

Construction appeared set to begin last year when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought the plan to a halt. It said the diversion could jeopardize the Colorado squawfish, an endangered species that turned up in the San Juan River in New Mexico. Ironically, it was shortsighted federal policy that caused its near extinction. Years ago parts of the San Juan were poisoned to eradicate the five-foot predator, whose appetite was impeding the area's attempts to become a trout-fishing mecca. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, the squawfish has now made the passage from menace to victim. Biologists believe-although they're not sure why-that it needs the spring high water to reproduce. Diversions from the Animas upstream in Colorado might lower the San Juan in New Mexico, interfering with spawning.

Another federal agency, the Bureau of Reclamation, offered a compromise. It proposed scaling back Animas-La Plata and drawing water from the Navajo Dam, on the Animas downstream from the proposed project. The water would be funneled to the San Juan to simulate the spring rise that allows the squawfish to spawn. But this plan worries sports enthusiasts, who now thrive on the trout fishing made possible by the near decimation of the squawfish. The releases from the dam could also endanger another water compromise that took years of thorny negotiation to complete. In 1962, the Navajos received irrigation water from the Animas in exchange for yielding some of their historic water rights to supply the city of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley. The city and valley are getting their water. But the Navajo Irrigation Pilot Project, which was supposed to turn 110,000 acres of arid plain into farmland, is 15 years behind schedule, Tribal leaders fear the crusade to save the squawfish could jeopardize its completion.

The situation may be headed for the courts. "This is a very small amount of water we're all fighting over," says Peterson Zah, the Navajo president. His lament describes more than the plight of his tribe. It's the legacy of a frontier where the land's natural gifts have always been dwarfed by the aspirations-and the hubris-of those who wanted to call it home.

In the West, nothing stirs up sentiment like an occasional war over a vanishing species. The typical battle pits the creature or plant against loggers, miners, ranchers, farmers or commercial developers. The judge in these disputes is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the authority to declare an organism endangered or threatened. "Endangered" applies to species that are or may soon be in danger of extinction; "threatened" refers to species that may soon become endangered. If a plant or animal falls into either category, the service can use federal law to guard it and its habitat. The following is a sampling of the dozens of species-some protected, some not, some not yet-at the heart of many Western battles.

Found in the dense forests of the Northwest, where clear-cutting may be harming its habitat. Not federally protected, but Idaho loggers fear that this flat-topped bird could turn out to be the next spotted owl.

Began dying when dams slowed the Colorado River's flow and caused water temperatures to fluctuate. Declared endangered in 1967. Protected status has halted construction of a new dam in southwestern Colorado.

Found north and west of the Colorado River. Listed as threatened in 1990 after a fatal respiratory disease struck its population. Also harmed by farming, overgrazing, highways, development and off-road vehicles.

One of five rare herbs that grow on the northern slope of California's San Bernardino Mountains. Not federally protected, but its habitat is under mining lease to Mitsubishi, Pfizer and other major operators.

Killed by ranchers and farmers because of attacks on livestock. Declared endangered throughout the West in 1973, but now seems to be making a comeback in Idaho, Montana and the Yellowstone area.

Listed as endangered in 1967 after farmers plowed up its grassland habitat and poisoned its main prey, the prairie dog. Reintroduced in the wilds of Wyoming earlier this month after four years of captive breeding.

A key symbol of the conflict between jobs and nature in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Listed as threatened in June 1990, a move that halted logging projects and put some lumberjacks out of work.

Found throughout the West. Not federally protected, but being studied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some environmentalists accuse developers of destroying this plumed bird's plains habitat

Often used to make taxol, a treatment for ovarian cancer. Some environmentalists say clear-cutting is threatening this valuable evergreen, but government researchers disagree. Denied federal protection last January.

Vanishing primarily because hydroelectric dams are blocking the way to its spawning grounds in Idaho. Proposed for endangered status last April; a final decision is expected by next spring.

May be threatened by logging in the coniferous forests of northern Arizona and New Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering a petition that says this bird of prey should receive federal protection.

Driven out of its habitat or killed by developers, hunters, ranchers and farmers. Declared threatened throughout the West in 1975, but is now slowly making a comeback in Montana and in the Yellowstone region.

Vanishing because of water projects in California's Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta. A petition for protection is pending; such intervention could reduce the amount of water diverted to drought-stricken farms and cities.

Nearly extinct because dam construction eliminated the marshy river pools it prefers, forcing it into main channels patrolled by its predators. Listed as endangered throughout the Southwest in 1986.

The deer and the antelope still play in the West, but discouraging words are heard far more often as environmentalists and others challenge business interests for control of the land. Key battlegrounds:

Native Americans and industry debate the social costs of protecting the dwindling runs of Pacific salmon that spawn in the Columbia River

A federal proposal for 500 units of overnight housing in Mt. Hood National Forest draws opposition from outdoor advocates in Oregon.

Ranchers are under fire from environmentalists who say livestock has stripped public land of vegetation and damaged sensitive ecosystems.

Miners, bikers and ranchers in California's East Mojave Desert oppose legislation that would protect the region by turning it into a national park.

Conservationists attack plans for a 300-seat indoor theater that would greet visitors at Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah.

Critics say excessive logging and grazing are endangering the scenic Hells Canyon recreation area on the Oregon-Idaho border.

Arizona's Navajo and Hopi tribes want to reclaim water used to transport coal slurry to a power-generating station in Nevada.

Tensions run high in northern Idaho, where loggers and conservationists fight over the future of the state's expanse of forested wildlands.

Mormon farmers and outdoor enthusiasts wage a legal fight to prevent expansion of a ski resort in northwest Wyoming's Teton

Environmentalists and Native Americans are fighting plans for oil and exploration in Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Native Americans and the government are at odds over a massive river-diversion project that would irrigate farm-land in northwestern New Mexico.

Include Bureau of Land Management and military properties, national forests and parks, and Indian reservations

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