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`Tree-Huggers' Fail to Shift Western Politics

Environmentalists and others are moving to the West, but unpopular Clinton administration efforts to change land-use policies have led many Democrats to turn to the GOP

THE ``New West'' has been going through considerable demographic and economic change as those moving in bring new values and lifestyles to an area steeped in tradition and myth.

But will the region's greatest migration since the opening of the Oregon Trail translate into a new political landscape as well?

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This is a key question in such states as Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, where state and congressional elections are drawing national attention.

Experts in these states say there may be more espresso-sipping, tree-hugging interlopers from California, but it's still the region where Ross Perot did better then anyplace else in 1992, where what's perceived as the Clinton administration's ``War on the West'' over natural resource management has alienated many, and where independence and the personal touch are more important than political party.

The influx of newcomers is ``a process still pretty early in its evolution,'' says Timothy Rife, publisher of the Montana Political Reporter.

Many newcomers indeed fit the stereotype. Mr. Rife calls these ``Ted Turner liberals,'' referring to the media executive and his wife, actress Jane Fonda, who (along with a number of other big names) have bought up ranches and businesses there.

Still, he adds, ``the folks coming into Montana are from all over the country, and a great many of them are conservatives.''

Sierra Club regional director Larry Mehlhoff, based in Sheridan, Wyoming, notes the indicators of change in his town: four places that sell cappuccino while there was only one a year ago and a big subdivision of $200,000-$400,000 homes being built.

``We really have been discovered,'' he says. ``I do think there's changing demographics, and I do think it will affect things.''

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``But it's not clear how,'' he adds. ``Things are so unsettled and difficult to predict this year.''

If anything, says University of Idaho political scientist Florence Heffron, Californians moving into her state are shifting the political balance rightward. ``They are tilting what is basically a conservative Republican state even more in that direction,'' she says.

Kent Briggs, senior fellow at the Denver-based research organization Center for the New West, lays the sense of disgruntlement that pervades much of the West at the doorstep of the Clinton administration - especially Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Mr. Babbitt has been pushing hard (without much success) for reform of national policy on logging, mining, grazing, and water. With an emphasis on protecting ecosystems, he wants to impose royalties on mining gold and other minerals on federal land. He'd like to raise the fee ranchers pay to graze cattle. And he's put an end to the kind of big water projects that opened up the West.

While newly transplanted voters may be more environmentally friendly and thus philosophically supportive of such reforms, Mr. Briggs says, they also tend to be very attracted to the mystique of a traditional way of life.

``There's a respect for the culture of the rural areas, and that's why I think [the administration] ran into a buzz saw,'' says Briggs. ``The administration is seen as elite and effete, insular and insolent.''

As they are in much of the rest of the country, many Democratic candidates here are distancing themselves from Bill Clinton. Again, the interior secretary is seen as a lightning rod.

``Bruce Babbitt is probably the devil incarnate for the Republican Party around here,'' says University of Wyoming political scientist James King.

Seventy percent of Montanans live in the western, mountainous part of the state, which is traditionally more Democratic. But ``Bruce Babbitt probably has manufactured more Republicans in the western half of the state than anybody else - including Ronald Reagan,'' says Tim Rife in the capital of Helena.

Two years ago, Ross Perot garnered 19 percent of the presidential vote for the nation overall. In Montana and Wyoming he won 26 percent, and in Idaho it was 27 percent. In other states experiencing the ``New West'' migration (Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Utah), he got 24 percent or better as well. A key question today is, how will Perot-supporters vote this Nov. 8?

``That's the big unknown, it really is,'' says professor King of the University of Wyoming.

It's one more indication, says Kent Briggs of the Center for the New West, that ``the story of '94 and what will finally shake out is going to be the failure of the so-called new politics of the new West.''

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