Are the West's governors turning over a new (green)leaf?

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

This summer, the governors of 17 Western states quietly changed their tune. Led by Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon, D, and Gov. Michael Leavitt of Utah, R, the mostly anti-federal-government members of the Western Governors' Association unanimously agreed to a "shared environmental doctrine," giving the federal and state governments shared responsibility for environmental protection.

On the surface, it's a significant departure for the association. But environmentalists say the initiative may be just another push for states' rights, this time packaged in the language of cooperation.

The proposal is called "Enlibra," a word coined by the governors to represent balance and stewardship. Its promoters say the federal government should determine environmental standards, but allow states and local communities to figure out how to reach those goals - an approach inspired by state-led efforts like Kitzhaber's Oregon Plan.

"These principles do not represent a rejection of the goals of federal environmental laws, nor do they reject the federal role in regulation and enforcement as a tool to achieve these objectives," said Kitzhaber in a speech this summer. "They do represent a realization that there is a need for new tools to solve increasingly complex environmental problems."

"We want to take the emphasis off the "cops and robbers' side and motivate good behavior instead," says Jim Soube, executive director of the Western Governors' Association. "It's time to enlist a lot of other people (to help solve environmental problems), and they're not going to come aboard if they think they're just going to get tagged by some federal agency."

Few environmentalists are paying attention to Enlibra. Jim Martin, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund in Boulder, Colo., says most activists "have decided it's easier to ignore" the activities of the Western Governors' Association, a group known for its anti-environmental positions.

Those aware of the proposal are suspicious. "Enlibra doesn't recognize that federal environmental laws are designed to push us forward, not act as a backstop," says Martin. "And the governors think if you can isolate the extremes you can find a solution, while in reality it's the extremes that are pushing the federal and state governments toward a solution."

David Bayles of the Oregon-based Pacific Rivers Council also questions Enlibra's call for balance in environmental problem-solving. "I think we passed the balance point a long time ago," he says. "The spotted owl did not need balance. The spotted owl needed a 90 percent reduction in old-growth logging. That was a choice between two irreconcilable alternatives.

"How do we make those tough decisions?" he asks. "That's the hard question. That's the question (Enlibra) hasn't addressed."

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