Environmentalists mostly skunked by Congress

  • Chuck Cushman heads the American Land Rights Association

    Pauline Braymen
  • North Algodones Dunes saved by California Desert Protection Act

    Doran Sanchez

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein paced the chamber of the U.S. Senate, Saturday morning, Oct. 8, just minutes before the adjournment of the 103rd Congress. The number 59 glowed on the electronic scoreboard.

Feinstein and a huddle of grim-faced Democrats knew they needed one more vote to end a month-long Republican filibuster frenzy that had prevented everything from President Clinton's health-care reform package to the revision of the archaic 1872 Mining Law. The remaining issue was a bill protecting 8 million acres of public land in the Southern California desert, and time was running out.

A few miles away, fellow Democrat Carol Mosley Braun, of Illinois, was desperately trying to free herself from the garage at her apartment complex so she could cast the decisive vote. The door was jammed, refusing to recognize her electronic ID card. At last the card reader clicked and the door opened and Mosley Braun rushed to the Senate floor to cast the vote, between peals of relieved laughter and a hug from Feinstein.

The California Desert Protection Act, a bill most observers considered a done deal following Feinstein's election two years ago, was finally law. Environmentalists notched one of their only victories during the 103rd Congress. Before election-year politics colored the debate, they also triumphed with a Colorado wilderness bill that protected more than 700,000 acres of national forests. An uncontroversial, 3,400-acre addition to Arizona's Saguaro National Monument also slid through in September.

The desert bill is nothing to scoff at. It designates the 1.5 million acre Mojave National Park and some 7 million acres of wilderness, and turns Death Valley National Monument into a much bigger national park. Environmentalists note it is the second largest land-protection bill focused on the lower 48 states since the 1964 Wilderness Act.

But the difficulty of its passage in what many thought would be the most environmentally progressive Congress since the Nixon years highlights the political divisiveness of this Congress.

"We had both California senators on our side, yet we still just eked out a last-minute victory," says Melanie Griffin, Sierra Club's public lands director.

To gain its passage, the bill's supporters had to swallow a number of amendments from the mining industry and advocates for hunting and private property rights. Despite concessions, Griffin says Republicans still tried to shoot down the bill, hoping to help Feinstein's opponent in the upcoming election, Michael Huffington.

On most fronts this session, the Republicans succeeded. The list of casualties included the Old Faithful Protection Act, which would have protected the unique geothermal features of Yellowstone from drilling. Most were bills that seemed likely to appeal to fiscally conservative and patriotic Republicans.

One bill would have required concessionaires operating hotels, restaurants and campgrounds in national parks to pay a heftier franchise fee directly to the park. Currently, concessionaires pay an average of just 2.5 percent on gross revenues exceeding $650 million; the payment goes to the general treasury where it is used to offset the federal deficit, says Kathy Westra, a spokeswoman for the National Parks and Conservation Association.

"This bill made good economic sense," says Westra. "It had the bipartisan support of a majority in both the House and the Senate." Ninety of the Senate's 100 members voted for the bill last March, yet during the autumn crunch, it died at the hands of conservative senators manipulating the rules.

Likewise, Republican Senators Larry Craig, Idaho, and Malcolm Wallop, Wyo., pulled the plug on the geothermal bill, successfully attaching a last-minute amendment removing Idaho and Wyoming from its scope. Fellow conservative Conrad Burns of Montana supported the bill, as did Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan.

But nowhere was disappointment so palpable as during the agonizing death of the 1872 Mining Law reform effort. Environmental groups backed legislation requiring mining companies to pay a royalty on minerals taken from public lands, stopping the fire-sale of federal land to mining companies for a few dollars an acre and prohibiting mining in certain environmentally sensitive areas.

A House/Senate conference committee couldn't meld an envionmentalist-backed House bill and an industry-sponsored Senate bill. And a mining industry that two years ago seemed ready to deal, convinced Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, D, and a handful of Republican moderates that putting off reform was better than agreeing to a painful compromise.

Wilderness bills in Idaho and Montana also failed again, but few thought they had much chance given the polarized delegations in the two states. The five-state, 13 million acre Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which includes wildlands in Montana and Idaho, gained just a toehold when discussed at a congressional hearing for the first time earlier this year.

Bad tactics

Many observers say the beginning of the end for the anticipated Clinton/Gore environmental revolution occurred in the early 1993 budget battle.

Clinton's budget, crafted in part by environmentalists, projected millions in revenue from a 12 percent royalty on hardrock mining and higher federal grazing fees, and millions more in savings from the elimination of below-cost timber sales. When Western senators complained, Clinton backed off, sending a message that, with a little pressure, the administration could easily be knocked off its environmental high ground.

Then, Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt decided to tackle grazing reform before mining. That allowed multinational mining companies, which present an easy target, to hide behind the chiseled and trustworthy face of the cowboy, says John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association. After Western senators sank a grazing reform bill sponsored by Nevada's Reid, Babbitt began a lengthy administrative reform effort that produced mostly bad press in the West and galvanized the wise-use/propery rights coalitions and their corporate supporters.

For opponents of environmental reform, the 103rd Congress was a coming-out party. Their champions on the hill successfully attacked a number of bills including the administration's National Biological Survey, elevation of the EPA to cabinet-level status, and renewal of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The nay-sayers also claim to have scared legislators into slowing revision of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

Tactics varied, but most attacks involved delay and the attachment of amendments mandating expensive cost-benefit analyses and assessments of impacts on property rights.

"It sure was a lot of fun," says Chuck Cushman, director of the American Land Rights Association based in Battleground, Wash. "We all had our heads down after the 1992 election. But when things get out of balance on one side, the politics allow the other side to be competitive. We've raised a lot of money and our people are highly motivated. It's a cycle."

Cushman's Washington, D.C., lobbyist, Myron Ebell, says his organization was successful mainly by blocking the environmental agenda.

"Grazing reform continues, the mining law will be back, and we haven't succeeded in opening up the national forests to timber harvesting," he says. "We haven't won anything, but clearly we have stopped the momentum of the other side."

Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club's conservation director, says, "It is far easier to kill legislation than to pass it."

Environmentalists know that all too well, having honed the same defensive skills during the tumultuous Reagan and Bush years.

Now, conservationists are re-evaluating a strategy that they admit focused too heavily on gaining reform in Washington, D.C., while shortchanging long-range grass-roots efforts.

Mining reform advocates say they still hope to convince Clinton and Babbitt to withdraw administratively a significant portion of the public domain from mining, thereby forcing the industry back to the table to make permanent changes in the law. They are also considering tackling mining reform piecemeal to simplify the issues for Congress and the public.

Myron Ebell says his organization will try to stop mining reform by throwing a property-rights wrench into the debate. Any royalty imposed on a miner who has a vested right to public-lands minerals could be construed as a "taking" of private property, he says.

Paul Larmer is HCN Associate Editor.

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