If you care about the environment, and you survived the presidential debates without running out into the backyard to scream at the heavens, you’re a bigger person than I. For those of you who missed them, the three debates included just one question on that "fringe issue" of what’s in the air we breathe, and whether we like trees in our national forests or just stumps. It came during the second debate, when a member of the audience asked George W. Bush how he would rate himself as an environmentalist.
Bush did a little verbal two-step about
"off-road diesel engines," building a "hydrogen-generated
automobile," and his "Healthy Forests" initiative: "What happens in
those forests, because of lousy federal policy, is they grow to be
— they are not — they’re not harvested."
If Bush was being coached through a hidden earpiece, as
folks in the Internet chat rooms claim, he must have been having
reception problems. Anyone who saw an easy opportunity for a
comeback from John Kerry was disappointed. Kerry has earned a 92
percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, but
you wouldn’t have guessed it from his muddled response. He
mocked the "Orwellian," smiley-face names the Bush administration
has given its environmental rollbacks, but then came up with a
Bushism of his own: "They pulled out of the global warming,
declared it dead."
So much for making sense of
environmental issues for the masses watching Campaign ’04 on
In the debate, Kerry hinted at the damage Bush has
done. But really, how much could happen in four short years?
President Clinton charged into office with V.P. Al "Earth in
Balance" Gore, and limped out of his first term having been whipped
by ranchers on grazing reform, having signed the infamous "salvage
rider," which allowed logging on the public forests without
environmental review, and having just one new national monument on
which to hang his environmental hat.
In fact, Bush has
accomplished a remarkable amount during his first term. He
obviously learned a thing or two from President Reagan, a
self-described "sagebrush rebel" who put property-rights champion
James Watt in charge of the Interior Department. Watt
self-destructed, along with his dreams of plundering the public
lands, largely because he was so honest about his intentions. Newt
Gingrich, the anti-environment Republican speaker of the House in
the mid-1990s, met a similar fate.
When the Bush-Cheney
team landed in the White House, it tried a somewhat subtler
strategy. Bush appointed a timber industry lobbyist to oversee the
Forest Service, and an energy company lobbyist as number-two man in
the Interior department, among others, and they went quickly
— and quietly — to work.
reneged on Clinton’s "Roadless Area Conservation Rule," which
would have protected 58.5 million acres of national forest. They
signed a deal with the state of Utah, stripping protection from 4.4
million acres of proposed wilderness. They pulled the guts out of
the Northwest Forest Plan, which had put more than three-quarters
of the region’s woods off limits to logging to protect salmon
and spotted owls. And they bailed out on a plan to ban snowmobiles
from Yellowstone National Park.
At the same time, the
administration pulled out the teeth of some of the nation’s
fiercest environmental laws. The result was that industry could
pollute more, cut more trees and drill more oil and gas wells. And
that has earned Bush an "F" from the League of Conservation Voters
— the first time ever for a president.
and Gingrich, however, the Bush administration has done most of its
work behind closed doors, and what the public hears is not what it
gets. Bush’s plan to allow more air pollution is dubbed
"Clear Skies," his plan to allow more logging, "Healthy Forests."
His Interior secretary, Gale Norton, touts her "Four C’s"
credo — "Communication, consultation and cooperation, all in
the service of conservation" — but her actions have prompted
James Watt, her former boss, to comment, "Twenty years later, it
sounds as if they’ve just dusted off the old work."
The problem with Bush’s strategy is that the
say-one-thing-and-do-another routine only works if no one is paying
attention. And for Westerners, it’s hard not to notice chain
saws buzzing in the national forest in the backyard, or drill rigs
and compressors chugging away in the front yard.
Norton’s "Four C’s" ring hollow when we’ve seen
her deep-six a plan for limited energy development on
Colorado’s Roan Plateau. The plan had broad support from
local city councils, hunting organizations, ranchers and
environmental groups, but it apparently wasn’t enough for the
oil companies (HCN, 9/1/03).
In fact, the
administration’s push for oil and gas has won it some
surprising enemies. Tweeti Blancett, a rancher who ran Bush’s
2000 campaign in northern New Mexico, watched the
administration’s energy policy roll onto the land her family
has used for pasture for six generations. Now, she’s on a
crusade to stop it.
The "green elephants" with the
Republicans for Environmental Protection have decided not to
endorse any candidate in the presidential election this year,
saying Bush’s environmental record is just too abominable to
Even the big media, which spent three years
being too meek to challenge any of the president’s
assertions, have started taking note. In mid-October, the
Los Angeles Times published new evidence that
Vice President Dick Cheney’s office pushed to keep a natural
gas drilling procedure known as hydraulic fracturing from being
regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, despite concerns
from government scientists (HCN, 10/27/03). Cheney’s old
company, Halliburton, which has paid the V.P. $398,548 in deferred
compensation since he took office, brings in $1.5 billion a year
from the technology, according to the Times.
In the past few months, the Bush administration has made
some small concessions, slowing development in a few spots in an
apparent effort to win over the votes of hunters and fishermen. But
as lifelong hunter Tom Reed told HCN recently,
"For me and the guys I hunt with, it’s too little too late.
One bone does not exactly make a supper."