For seven years, locals in rural Yarnell, Ariz., have fought a proposed cyanide-process gold mine. Ore would be blasted out of the ground 500 feet from their houses, periodically shutting down the only road leading to emergency medical care.
"The mine would destroy this town," says resident Don Newhouse.
Newhouse and his neighbors felt they'd gotten a reprieve when President Bill Clinton, on his last day in office, signed a new hard-rock mining policy. The revised regulations would allow the Bureau of Land Management to deny mining proposals on the basis of community or environmental concerns. The revision also demanded that mining companies pay significant bonds to cover cleanup costs and required state agencies to enforce standards that protect water quality and wildlife habitat (HCN, 2/12/01: New mining regs slip into rulebooks).
But what one administration creates, another can take away. On March 23, the BLM announced that it would review the new regulations and give the public 45 days to comment on whether they want the old rules reinstated.
"What was wrong with those comments and the four years we spent writing letters and attending hearings?" asks Newhouse. "What's the new expertise that's going to come from just 45 new days?"
Newhouse isn't the only one upset. Environmentalists are reeling from a series of rollbacks issued by the Bush administration in late March that affect water quality, endangered salmon and national forests. Many pundits say these first actions signal how the Bush administration will approach natural resource issues over the next four years.
"It's our worst fears come true," says Elliott Negin of Natural Resources Defense Council. "We see the events of the last couple weeks as a craven capitulation to the benefactors who funded Bush's campaign."
A river of rollbacks
In mid-March, Bush revoked a campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming (HCN, 3/26/01: The environmental movement is a-muddle).
Then on March 19, regional directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that they would no longer follow a Clinton order to decrease logging alongside salmon-bearing streams east of the Cascade Mountains. Brian Gorman of NMFS says, "This doesn't change anything, as far as protections go," but Pat Ford of Save Our Wild Salmon calls the rollback "a signal that this administration is not committing to protect salmon."
The following day, Christine Todd Whitman, director of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced she would revoke a Clinton administration proposal to reduce the allowable level of arsenic in drinking water. Arsenic, found naturally in rock, can seep into rivers as a mining byproduct or can exist naturally in groundwater. A study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences in 1999 found that then-current arsenic standards resulted in a 1 percent risk of cancer. Based on that study and a decade of lobbying by citizen groups, the Clinton administration lowered the acceptable arsenic levels from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb. Now, Whitman says the decision was not based on sound science and didn't consider impacts on consumer water bills in places like New Mexico.
Later in the week, Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced that she wants to "revisit banning snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park." Then the Justice Department said it wouldn't defend Clinton administration rules that prohibit building new roads on 60 million acres of national forest. The rules have been challenged by the state of Idaho and Boise Cascade timber company.
"I thought they would take it more slowly," says Stewart Udall, who was secretary of Interior under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. "It's clear that the ideologues in the White House, (Vice-President Dick) Cheney in particular, are starting to call the shots."
Dave Alberswerth, a former BLM employee who helped craft Clinton's mining reform regulations, says he isn't surprised.
"A presidential regime that wasn't even elected isn't going to care very much what the public thinks," Alberswerth says. "Special-interest money got Bush into the White House, and so he's going to cater to their needs."
While many pundits predicted that without a mandate Bush would lie low, Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project says that the president must act "fast and furiously" if he hopes to make big changes. Currently, Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate, but that could change with the next election in two years.
"Mid-term elections typically go against the president in power," says Flynn. "They hope to get these changes passed while Republicans are running the government."
Pushing the pendulum
According to Bush supporters, the administration is only following through on a campaign promise to look into all policies created by its predecessor.
"What I see here is the Bush administration moving the pendulum back to the center," says Laura Skaer of the Northwest Mining Association.
"This is about looking at each environmental initiative and asking for input from all affected parties," says Sarah Berk, a staffer for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. "The public was left out in the cold by Clinton; this administration is a breath of fresh air."
Joe Danni, vice president-corporate relations for Placer Dome Inc., a gold-mining company, says that while he welcomes the changes considered by the new administration, the power shifts that occur with each election aren't a good foundation for creating natural resource policy.
"We have a reprieve right now," says Danni. "But we certainly don't want another James Watt revisited; that only polarizes the situation more."
Other observers are taking a longer view. Colorado University law professor Charles Wilkinson says that while this administration may shift environmental policy a bit to the right, it can't reverse three decades of increasingly progressive public-lands policy.
"There's been more stability and honest progress than might appear to be the case," says Wilkinson. "Many of the developments that came about in the Clinton administration, like mining reform, were actually started in the (first) Bush administration."
Even so, Wilkinson adds, these rollbacks shouldn't be taken lightly.
"People have to appreciate how radical these proposals are," he says. "And they have to act now."
Rebecca Clarren is assistant editor for High Country News.
You can contact...
- Elliott Negin, Natural Resources Defense Council, 202/289-6868;
- Laura Skaer, Northwest Mining Association, 509/624-1158;
- U.S. Department of Interior, Office of Communications, 202/273-0482.