Cowboying Up

NRDC’s Bobby McEnaney wrangles ranchers, energy experts, and environmentalists to protect public lands while expanding clean energy.

About 175 years ago, an Irish immigrant with little money but a lot of self-confidence arrived in Mobile, Alabama, and summarily began looking for work. For more than a decade, his search propelled him farther and farther north until finally he decided on a good-enough stopping point: Montana. The environment—rough, wild, wide open—suited him, and his family soon became some of the first nonnatives to settle in Prickly Pear Valley: a tiny community of hardy pioneers that is now the state capital, Helena.

Although he lives in Washington, D.C., Bobby McEnaney—that early settler’s great-great-great grandson—doesn’t hesitate to identify the mountain West as his home. He’s still intrinsically connected to the land. It’s where his family has lived for five generations. It’s where he was born, raised, and educated. And it’s where McEnaney, who serves as the senior deputy director of NRDC’s Western Renewable Energy Project, focuses his advocacy work.

On paper, McEnaney’s job description is relatively straightforward: He promotes the development of renewable energy resources on the nation’s public lands while working to protect our lands from the dirtier energy processes that threaten them. But there’s much more to it than that. McEnaney is also an ambassador, a figure whose ability to get things done relies on trust. It’s a trust he’s gained from conservationists, environmentalists, and clean energy experts after having advocated for many of their causes since he was a teenager, and a trust he’s gained from Western ranchers and landowners because he is, quite simply, one of them.

“Montana is an interesting place,” McEnaney says. “On the one hand, it’s very libertarian, but it also has this really interesting progressive streak. One of my mom’s cousins is a rancher, economically very conservative and a big believer in free markets. But his ranch is probably the best-run, most sustainable cow-grazing operation I’ve ever seen. He’s on one end of the political spectrum. But he’s also a conservationist.”

Within his own lineage, two character types have ultimately shaped McEnaney. There are the rugged individualists, represented by his pioneering great-great-great grandfather and the generations of independent-minded ranchers and miners who came after him. And there are the public servants, such as his father, a career veteran of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and his mother, who worked for the U.S. Marshals Service. These influences have helped McEnaney see his job, in a very real way, as a translator: someone fluent in both the language of private property rights and the language of the public good.

McEnaney began advocating for Western lands before he could legally buy beer. While attending college in Idaho in the late 1980s, he cofounded an organization dedicated to stopping the appropriation of more than five million acres of wilderness in the southwest part of the state by the U.S. Air Force, which wanted to convert the land into a massive bombing range. “They were literally planning to take over an entire corner of the state, one of the largest unprotected wilderness areas in the world, just so they could bomb it,” he says.

Even though the Cold War was still being waged, and even though McEnaney and his colleagues were making their argument in one of the nation’s most conservative states, they were able to form a coalition of sportsmen, Native American tribes, veterans, conservation groups, and other stakeholders to amplify their respective concerns and give the area “a voice.” In the end, the air force was unable to ignore the strength and clarity of that voice, and millions of acres were spared a grim future as a proving ground for deadly weapons.

For a while—both during college and after—it appeared that McEnaney’s focus on Western lands would keep him close to home. Even he admits that he didn’t really expect to hear back from NRDC after spying an ad for an opening in its Washington, D.C., office one day back in 2004. But there was something about the job description that made him wonder. “They said they were looking for someone who really understood ranching and livestock grazing and who had a background working in the West,” he says. “I read it and immediately thought: ‘Wow. That’s me.’ ”

He was indeed the right person for the job—a fact that was made clear to him when he was given his first major assignment as a new NRDC staffer. “At the time, the [George W.] Bush administration was set to gut the rules that governed livestock grazing on public lands,” McEnaney says. The government “was basically ready to sign over the titles to these lands to individual ranchers and let them do whatever they wanted to on them. We were about to lose over 160 million acres. We had to stop them.”

Credit: Rebecca Greenfield for NRDC

It wasn’t going to be easy. “Livestock grazing is the largest industrial use of lands in America,” McEnaney says. “One out of every four acres of federal land will have a cow on it at some point today. Given the mythos of ranching—what cowboys represent—it’s something of a third-rail issue” in the West. “Ranchers have incredible political sway with legislatures and political leaders.”

But both NRDC and McEnaney knew there were voices in the West—including ranching voices—who had a different perspective on how our public lands should be treated. “My job was to try to find them and to bring them to the fore: to give them an opportunity to speak about why some of the proposals being made weren’t necessarily in the nation’s best interest, or the public lands’ best interest, or even the ranching community’s best interest.”

McEnaney also reached out to employees of federal agencies, “encouraging them to speak up, to go out on a limb and say, ‘This is [tantamount to] the political gerrymandering of regulations.’” Several of those employees, at risk to their careers, provided documents that aided NRDC immeasurably. “We were able to create an administrative record showing that the Bush administration actually doctored biological reports,” he says. “We saw records that had been altered so that the opinions were literally reversed—so that language like ‘This proposal is bad for livestock’ would have the word bad scratched out and replaced with good.”

Today, McEnaney is at the fore of a number of important NRDC public lands campaigns, including the effort to secure permanent federal protection for the Bears Ears wilderness area in Utah. Much of his work, though, is devoted to finding new ways of using public lands to help our country transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.

In talking about renewables, he can sound very much like the earnest, excitable college kid who took on the U.S. Air Force—and won. “We’re working with an industry that didn’t even really exist eight years ago,” he says. “We’re creating a framework for how to build out renewable energy on public lands, one that can sustain itself and can also be environmentally sustainable from a wildlife and landscape perspective. This didn’t happen with mining, or oil and gas, or livestock grazing. In those cases, the industries always dictated the terms, and then the federal government just adapted to their standards.”

Renewables, to McEnaney, represent a chance to get our energy policy right—and to get it right the first time. “Because we have to,” he says. “The stakes are too high. But we’ve never really done this before. So we’re going to have to learn from what we’ve done wrong and borrow from what we’ve done right.”

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