With millions of dollars of salvage logging hanging in the balance, try to imagine the government paying partisan environmentalists to draw up management alternatives for Oregon's burned over Biscuit Fire.

I can hear the howls of outrage now. But let's stop dreaming. We're living under one of the most environmentally unfriendly administrations since the early 20th Century.

Activism is healthy but governments don't subcontract the power over the public interest to people with a private agenda - if those governments are on the level. One of German sociologist Max Weber's tests of bureaucratic legitimacy is that it should operate with at least a modicum of impartiality. No foxes in the henhouse.

So long as the Bush Administration runs the government, power is - I think we can safely say - unlikely to be subcontracted to the Left.

The Right, regrettably, is a different story. And the latest, most shocking evidence of this is to be found in southeastern Oregon, where the Bureau of Land Management's scoping work for Oregon's majestic Steens Mountain Protective Area has been hired out to leaders of the mining industry (no, this is not a typo!).

The firm, Enviroscientists, Inc. of Reno is a corporate member of the Nevada Mining Association, the Northwest Mining Association, the British Columbia and Yukon Chamber of Mines, and the California Mining Association.

For the current administration, foxes in the henhouse don't seem to be the problem - it's the kind of foxes in the henhouse that make the difference.

Steens Mountain is one of the geological wonders of the Pacific Northwest. The mountain juts dramatically from the Alvord Desert as a result of geologic uplift that occurred between 16 and 23 million years ago. The ridge stretches several miles along that ancient fault line. Standing atop the mountain, you see two distinct worlds only a mile or so apart: a spectacular mountain with highland vegetation on the west and - one vertical mile directly below - a desert on the east as arid as the Mojave, caused by the mountain's rain shadow.

Sights to beholdJagged outcroppings and sheer cliffs showcase the dramatic force of wind and water through time. Hot springs, mud pots, steam vents and mini-geysers on the desert floor attest to the living geologic nature of this region. On the mountain, breath-taking glacier-carved gorges host plant communities of sagebrush and native bunchgrasses. Snowmelt-fed lakes, wet meadows and beautifully wild streams support desert plants and wildflowers, shimmering groves of aspen, cottonwood and mountain mahogany.

If this isn't Eden, Eden is just around the corner.

The area is special enough that even Oregon's fractious congressional delegation decided it required protection from decades of overgrazing, off-road vehicle use, and other forms of degradation. It passed a bill in 2000 designating the area the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protective Area.

Of course, putting the law into effect requires an scoping action, which in turn depends on critical analysis of public comments and the development of range of management alternatives for the landscape.

For this work the Bureau of Land Management turned to Enviroscientists Inc. The company's president, Richard DeLong, is treasurer of the California Mining Association. Its vice president is on the board of trustees of the Northwest Mining Association. Last May, DeLong blamed "radical environmentalists and ill-informed local governments" for stopping certain mines and then discussed ways to "minimize the effects" of environmental activists.

Not surprisingly, the draft plan developed by Delong and his company - and approved by BLM - recommends leaving nearly half a million acres of the Steens Protective Area open to - what? Mining, of course. Open pit mines for gold, silver and mercury could be approved if certain sites are released from a wilderness study area.

Sadly, this story is part of a broader pattern in which the Bush Administration isn't just contracting out sensitive environmental work to dubious corporations. It is also stocking the leadership of federal regulatory agencies with corporate figures who previously made a living doing combat with those same agencies.

Thus, Mark Rey, the former chief lobbyist of the American Forest and Paper Association, supervises the Forest Service. The spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture on mad cow disease was hired from the National Cattlemen's Association, and the chief legal advisor for the Administration's salmon recovery plan in the Northwest is Mark Rutzick, a man who built his career fighting for the timber industry against the endangered Northwest spotted owl.

But they say this is your government.

Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer, professor and political commentator. He served for 18 years in the U.S. Congress and is a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives. Email him at:

(lesaucoin@excite.com)

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