You walk past a wrecking yard and see, on the other side of a high chain-link fence, not a pit bull with a mouth full of teeth, but a goldfish in a tank. That’s the image called up by Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt’s nomination as head of the Environmental Protection Administration. It’s a nomination that makes no sense.
Leavitt is not
anti-environment. He worked with Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon to
create a pro-environment program in the Western Governors’
Association. And he got beat up badly by the locals in southern
Utah when he tried to protect the spectacular San Rafael Swell;
Emery County residents feared they would no longer be able to ride
their motorized quadracycles over that wonderful federal
His darkest environmental stain is the Legacy
Highway. If it’s built, a massive chunk of concrete will
smash through the wetlands along the east side of the Great Salt
Lake. A slightly lighter stain is the deal he just cut with the
Bush administration to open millions of acres of potential
wilderness land to oil and gas development.
Leavitt is greener than Utah. How much greener it is impossible to
say, since he got his chain yanked by his fellow Utahns whenever he
moved to protect the environment.
The real question is why
the president nominated a Westerner to run the EPA, when the West
doesn’t have an environment, in the EPA sense of the word. We
have Yellowstone and rivers and immense expanses of national forest
and desert that are every American’s birthright.
the EPA isn’t mainly concerned with wide-open-spaces where
deer and antelope still try to roam. The agency doesn’t
enforce the Endangered Species Act, which protects grizzlies and
wolves and black-footed ferrets.
The EPA is primarily
about brown clouds over cities and rivers that catch fire and how
much soot power plants can belch. The EPA is about making it
possible for tens of millions of people to live cheek-by-jowl with
industry and constantly congested highways and sewage treatment
plants that dump effluent into rivers that then provide drinking
water for the cities downstream.
Westerners can be head of
the Department of Interior, which runs the publicly owned West. We
also gravitate to the Department of Defense, as Wyomingite Dick
Cheney did. We certainly can’t be secretary of the Treasury
because we’re a welfare region. A Westerner at Treasury would
panic Wall Street and Main Street.
Nor should a Westerner
head the Environmental Protection Agency. The reason has to do with
geography and demography. Christine Todd Whitman, who finally quit
as EPA chief in disgust a few months ago, fit the traditional mold.
This moderate Republican had been governor of New Jersey’s
7,400 square miles and 8.1 million people, or 1,100 people per
Utah, a big, boxy state, is 12 times bigger
than New Jersey, at 82,000 square miles. Utah has lots of
Western-type environment. But it has only 2,100,000 residents, or
26 people per square mile. Each Utahn has 40 times more elbow room
than each New Jerseyan.
Whitman knew instinctively about
people being afflicted by noise and air pollution and filthy rivers
and Superfund sites in aging cities. But how can a Utah native
understand or sympathize with the EPA and its core mission? We,
thankfully, only have samples of those problems. The Wasatch Front
or Colorado Front Range looms large to a Utahn or Coloradoan. But
it’s just a taste of sprawl compared to a really dense
So why nominate Leavitt? President Bush
must be so confident of his 2004 re-election that he doesn’t
think he needs an appropriate EPA head. Why make your Cabinet
meetings contentious by having someone argue for cleaner power
plants when you can have a Westerner whose every instinct will be
to increase the mining and burning of fossil fuels?
nominating Leavitt, Bush is inviting a bring-’em-on fight of
the kind he relishes. Democrats and environmentalists will attack
Leavitt as anti-environment. The Republicans will defend him as a
moderate and a nice guy.
Both arguments are irrelevant.
What counts is that Leavitt will come to this important job without
a deep understanding of the 200 million or so coastal and
Midwestern Americans who are the EPA’s core constituents.
Understanding their needs won’t be bred in his bones, as it
was with Whitman, or would be with an Easterner such as New York
Gov. George Pataki.
When it comes to EPA’s core
constituencies and major issues, Leavitt has no record, no
experience, no relevant background. This fight is about inviting a
goldfish to guard a wrecking yard. This fight is about the
structure and purpose of a Cabinet-level office. And it suggests
that if Bush succeeds with this inappropriate nomination, he will
romp to victory in 2004.