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 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 no — they’re not harvested."

If Bush was being coached through a hidden earpiece, as some Internet chat rooms claim, he must have been having reception problems.

But anyone who saw an easy opportunity for a comeback from John Kerry was disappointed. Though Kerry has earned a 92 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, you wouldn’t have guessed it from his muddled response. He mocked the 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 any sense of environmental issues for the folks who watch television.

In that second debate, Kerry hinted at the environmental damage Bush has done. You might ask, "How much could happen in four short years?" You'd be surprised.

During his first term, the president appointed a timber industry lobbyist to oversee the Forest Service, an energy company lobbyist as a top dog in the Interior department, among others, and they went quickly — and quietly — to work. They reneged on Clinton’s "Roadless Area Conservation Rule," which would have protected 58 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.

All this has helped earn Bush an "F" from the League of Conservation Voters — the first time ever for a president — but the president’s spin-meisters are a savvy bunch. Bush’s plan to allow more air pollution is dubbed "Clear Skies," his plan to allow more old-growth logging, "Healthy Forests." Interior Secretary Gale Norton touts her "Four C’s" credo — "communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation" — but goes out of her way to stoke the rancor and mistrust surrounding public-lands management.

The problem with Bush’s strategy is that the say-one-thing-and-do-another routine only works if no one is paying attention. Out here on the ground, it’s obvious that Bush is earning points with his industry supporters but doing little to help the rural West. Packwood, Wash., firewood cutter John Squires sees the neglect clearly: "The left says (to its campaign contributors), "We need to save the trees, give us money," and the right says, "They’re going to destroy jobs, give us money. Every party has said they’re going to help our communities, and no party has."

In this election, Squires isn’t counting on either presidential candidate to save the day. Instead, he’s joined with local environmentalists, union members and Native Americans to promote a plan to thin second-growth forest plantations while steering clear of the last old growth — even though the Bush administration has tried mightily to open that old growth to logging.

"Let’s not let the people in Washington, D.C, or the courts, decide," he adds. "I hope we can decide what it is that we’re going to do, and then go as a united front to our politicians and ask them to help out."

That, it seems, is the challenge facing Westerners today — to take our collective vision for the region to Washington, a vision that includes landscape-scale conservation and an economy based on restoration. We need to get our politicians following us, for a change. That will be hard to do if the White House continues to be run by the logging and mining and oil industries, rather than by someone who has the good of the West’s publicly owned lands and communities at heart.

Greg Hanscom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the editor of the paper in Paonia, Colorado.