Environmentalists in the West are shaking their heads after learning that one of Arizona's most prominent anti-public-lands and climate-change-denying politicians, U.S. Representative Paul Gosar, was just elected chairman of the U.S. Congressional Western Caucus.
"Congressman Paul Gosar has built a career carrying water for industrial interests while working against America's public-lands heritage. He's even called the effort to protect the Grand Canyon from uranium mining 'extremist.' His political pedigree certainly qualifies him to lead the Congressional Western Caucus, which consists of the most out-of-touch, anti-park, and anti-conservation politicians from across the West," says Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities.
The Congressional Western Caucus touts itself as a coalition of western political leaders determined "to enhance, sustain, and preserve the West's dynamic and unique culture, and to find innovative solutions that address the distinctive concerns facing western and rural communities." To critics, however, it's a 51-member group composed of conservative Republicans hellbent on getting the federal government to turn over public lands, dismantle conservation efforts, and open new areas to development and mining. (The group is open to Democrats, but given the caucus' philosophical bent, none have chosen to join.)
"Gosar sounds like a great choice for this group," says Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. "You've got one of the most energetic advocates for the selloff and/or destruction of public lands to the private extractive resource entrepreneurs that fund him. He's also a great leader in the war against public lands and the destruction of rare and special species."
In the six years Gosar has been in office — two as the representative of Arizona's First Congressional District and then four in the more reliably conservative CD 4 — he has made a name for himself as a gadfly of the Obama administration, railing regularly against what he sees as executive overreach and seeming to be on a one-man mission to stop the Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument.
While nationally he's probably most famous for boycotting Pope Francis's visit to Washington last year (because the Pope was going to talk about climate change), he tends to make headlines in Arizona as a strong critic of environmental policies like the Clean Power Plan or as a strong proponent of the mining industry. (According to OpenSecrets.org, Gosar received about $20,000 from the mining industry and $35,500 from utility companies in the 2016 elections.)
Given his track record, it comes as no surprise that his colleagues have chosen him to replace outgoing chairwoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, who did not seek re-election. (Lummis is believed to be on President-elect Donald Trump's shortlist for a cabinet position.) Under Lummis, the caucus fought to derail Obama's environmental efforts and to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency — the EPA and its administrator, Gina McCarthy, have been two of Gosar's favorite political punching bags.
"[Gosar] is a fighter against the president's policies that have stifled energy production on public lands, have locked up massive amounts of our land through executive fiat, have attempted to seize our water, have issued an onslaught of new regulations that are killing energy jobs, and have had a backwards strategy for managing our nation's forests that has failed the West and placed western communities at risk," former House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo said about Gosar earlier this summer.
Gosar, who previously served as the caucus' vice chairman for communications and outreach, released a statement expressing his gratitude for the high honor of being elected chairman.
"Having lived in the West all my life, I'm very familiar with the pertinent regional issues. Westerners desperately need allies in Congress that fight on their behalf," he said. "The Western Caucus deserves bold leadership that empowers its members to take real action and enact practical solutions. The future is bright for Western communities. I can’t wait to work with the outstanding members of this Caucus so we can deliver meaningful results for Americans throughout the country."
Gosar went on to call the caucus a well-respected "force to be reckoned with" and promised to uphold the group's principles — a message that doesn't sit well with Sandy Bahr, chapter director of the Arizona Sierra Club.
"This is bad news for Arizona and the West, for our public lands, wildlife, and much of what makes the West special — and great," she says about Gosar's new post. "Unlike Congressman Gosar, we think the West is already great."
Gosar did not respond to a request for an interview to discuss his priorities for the caucus and how they might be affected by the incoming administration of Donald Trump, whom he endorsed earlier this summer.
According to the caucus' website, the group will work to "increase energy independence and security, protect and promote multiple use access to federal lands, help educate the public, and eventually bring about common-sense reforms to outdated environmental statutes such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, and to reevaluate and reorient current views and policies on federal land ownership."
Asked about this agenda, Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity laughs a little.
"Gosar is an evangelical [Christian]," he says, "but he's also one that only gives lip service to Noah and his ark on Sunday morning and the rest of the time could care less. Noah wouldn't be happy about this, that's for sure."