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 landscape.
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.
But overall, 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.
But 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 square mile.
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 metropolitan area.
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?
In 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.
Ed Marston (firstname.lastname@example.org) is High Country News’ senior journalist.