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.
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 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
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
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 EPA isn"t
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 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
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
Utah, a big-box 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
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
We, thankfully, only have samples of those
problems. The Wasatch Front or Colorado Front Range looms large to
a Utahn or Colorado. 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’s 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 New York Gov. George Pataki.
When it comes to what
matters to the EPA, 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 nomination, he will romp to victory in