The Craig bill: Calm down, everybody

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Ah, for the glory years of the 104th. Those were the days, when Western Republicans filled the congressional hoppers with their dreams for their region's public lands - plans to help one species or another chop more trees, chomp more grass, dig more mines and maybe even present some of the land as a gift to the states.

You know what the poet said about plans. Most of these ganged agley, except for one of the tree-chopping proposals, and even that was just temporary.

Still, all this activity had a lot of impact. It fed the Beast. On both sides of the issue, it got the troops riled up. Wise-users and Greenies faxed and e-mailed their joy and/or dismay to selected editorial writers, talk-show hosts and the usual contributors. Everybody shouted, screamed and raised money, which as every true Washingtonian knows, are the purposes of life.

And now? As another poet might have said, where are the desecrations of yesteryear? In this hunkered-down, wait-and-see Congress, the first one after the Revolution-that-wasn't, it's hard to find something which gets the blood to flow.

Ta-Dahhh! Larry Craig to the rescue. The conservative senator from Idaho has proposed a bill which would, depending on one's point of view, streamline logging in the national forests or effectively hand over said forests to the states and to the timber industry.

Let the press releases roll. The forest products industry, a generous contributor to the senator, thinks it's a wonderful idea, as do the diverse wise-use organizations around the West, which are not merely supportive but enthusiastic. Environmental organizations are appalled.

Could everybody please calm down? First of all, I sort of lied a couple of paragraphs ago. Craig has not really proposed a bill, in the sense that he has formally introduced it. "It's not a bill, it's a draft," he said during an interview in his office. "We're having workshops to discuss it, and we're inviting everyone to the table."

Second, if this were a real bill, it would be a very dead one. Much of it couldn't pass one house, much less the other, and none could overcome a likely presidential veto.

Third, and most important, the proposal as written is not to be taken with complete seriousness. Craig is a senator, not a comedian, but some of his plan has to make one wonder whether he's trying to throw a bone to his supporters and annoy his critics, just for the fun of it.

Take the provision which has aroused apoplexy among environmentalists, who describe it as a plan to transfer authority (and eventual ownership) over federal forest lands to the states.

Well, it would. But as Craig explains it, here's how it would work: If the chief of the Forest Service thought a state could properly manage a national forest, he could ask Congress for permission to enter into a contract with the appropriate state agency. Only "an act of Congress' could authorize the contract, and then only after review by the state and federal governments.

Now, let's segue to the real world. None of this would happen unless: (1) the governor and his appointees were confident that they could manage a forest without embarrassing themselves; (2) the chief of the Forest Service and the secretary of Agriculture (meaning the president, too) wanted to give up some of their power; and (3) a majority of both houses of Congress agreed.

How often would this be likely to happen? "Never," is the word that comes to mind. This part of the proposal may help environmental groups raise money by scaring their contributors, and it may delude wise-users into thinking that their day is about to come. It will do little else.

Not that there are no reasons to oppose Craig's draft bill. To begin with, there is the tactical consideration. Environmentalist opposition, even if overwrought, may be one of the reasons the bill wouldn't pass even if it were a real bill. These days, perhaps, you may have to scream to get anyone to pay attention.

Then there are the merits of the case. In attempting to "streamline" the forest sale procedure, "and save the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars," as Craig put it, his plan would shift the balance of power to favor the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management at the expense of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The environmental laws would still have to be followed, but as interpreted and applied by the agencies whose reflex is to produce goods, not to preserve nature.

But other features of the Craig proposal, even if they are flawed, ought to be discussed, not dismissed as giveaways to the timber industry. Maybe the wording he uses to discourage "frivolous" challenges to timber sales would also squelch legitimate challenges. So get a sharp lawyer to figure that out, and if it would, insist that the wording be changed.

But few Americans would object to a plan that would render it less likely that a timber sale could be delayed by a class of sophomores at an Eastern university who wouldn't know a Douglas fir tree from a potato. This has actually happened. Just as there actually was a young man from Brooklyn, who had never been west of the Mississippi, who for a while there would file a challenge to every timber sale.

Nor would many voters oppose the idea of giving local organizations a chance to speak their piece, and giving local residents information about how policies will affect them. One of Craig's proposals deals with "community stability." Given his history, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether he's just trying to give timber towns a veto over environmental policy. So find that same smart lawyer (or a partner; you know how specialized everything is these days) and make sure the language gets changed if necessary. In and of itself, "community stability" is not objectionable.

Like everyone else around here, the environmental lobby has learned too well how to speak in sound bites. A commission to review the national park system, proposed last year in a bill which never had any chance to pass, was described in environmental fund-raising mailings as a "parks closing commission," likening it to the military-base closing commissions, which it was not like.

The fund-raising mailings on that issue also quoted the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Hansen of Utah, saying of Great Basin National Park, "If you've been there once, you don't need to go again," just to prove that he's an airhead.

Maybe he is, but those were not his words. They were those of a doctor who attended a 1994 campaign event. "I never said it. I don't agree with it, but I quoted it," Hansen said. "I was just using it to show that there are different tastes, differences of opinion. I love Great Basin."

On all sides of the abortion, school prayer or Medicare issues, rhetorical excess is routine, perhaps because the direct-mail mavens advise their clients that the best way to raise money is to alarm their loyalists. And on the other side of the Western land-use issues, the wise-use crowd is often guilty of outright invention, a step beyond exaggeration.

Still, that's a wise old story, the one about the kid who kept crying wolf. That's why some folks miss the 104th Congress. It came to town snorting and growling, like a real wolf. This Congress is a puppy dog.

Jon Margolis lives in Vermont but frequently frequents Washington, D.C.

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