Court makes the right choice by sticking up for monumentsIt was good last week to read of the federal Court of Appeals' decision in favor of national monuments established by President Clinton in the waning days of his administration.

This is of more than academic interest here, as it preserves protected status for the Hanford Reach of the Columbia, source of one of this river's most robust salmon runs. The decision also affects the now 2-year-old 52,947-acre Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon, plus 17 other new monuments and three that were expanded. In all, 5.9 million acres are protected.

The president's ability to establish monuments is well established under laws passed by Congress and upheld in court. Clinton, in a move widely regarded as a last-ditch grab at an environmental legacy, put these laws through their paces as never before. But there was little doubt in most quarters that what he did was legal and proper.

Besides protecting some gorgeous undeveloped federal land in the Northwest and elsewhere, this court decision is a telling comment on U.S. Interior Secretary Gail Norton. Prior to her appointment to high office by President Bush, Norton had a long involvement with the Mountain States Legal Defense Fund of Denver. This reflexively anti-environment organization was a chief purveyor of the lawsuit challenging the monuments, and has served as an incubator for a number of other Bush officials who are supposed to protect our precious public lands.

Environmental groups are sometimes charged, and justifiably so, with picking legal fights just to raise contributions. This also appears to have been part of the reason for the attack on the new monuments, a court challenge that has been termed frivolous.

Beyond that, it is a sign the Mountain States Legal Defense Fund and its allies will test every avenue in their efforts to undo years of reforms that curbed abuses of federal lands in the West. As in this instance, they won't win every time. But with close friends in the White House, they'll win often enough to make it worth their while.

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