Wise-use power is overblown; the real threat is apathy


The 103rd Congress, which just wrapped up most of its business, was the worst environmental Congress since the first Earth Day 25 years ago.

The conventional wisdom in the mainstream press is that this poor record comes from the diminished clout of the environmental movement and the rise of the wise-use movement.

But is the conventional wisdom accurate?

While there is little joy in the environmental camp, there is also dismay and frustration among those flying the misleading banner of wise use. They achieved stalemate in many cases but were unable to advance their anti-environmental agenda.

Take a look at their wish list, as promoted by Ron Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. They hoped to:

* Repeal or weaken the Endangered Species Act. The reality: Public polls indicate continued strong support for this act; attempts to gut the act have been turned back in every Congress. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is now promoting a program of protecting entire endangered ecosystems. Environmentalists continue to win lawsuits filed under the act and new listings are picking up.

* Allow the harvest of remaining ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest to provide jobs. The reality: President Clinton convened a Forest Summit that led to an 80 percent reduction in timber harvest levels in the forests west of the Cascades. The Northwest began an economic transition away from timber dependency; Oregon reported a decrease in unemployment.

* Weaken the Clean Water Act to prevent over-protection of wetlands. The reality: Public support for strengthening the Clean Water Act, even if it costs more, remains high. The Bush-Quayle efforts to gut wetlands regulations were rejected. Attempts to weaken the Clean Water Act failed in Congress.

* Maintain the 1872 Mining Act and head off all reform. The reality: The mining industry has barely dodged a bullet. Reform bills passed both the House and the Senate for the first time in 122 years. Even Western senators who managed to kill reform in earlier years see reform is inevitable. Public polls show increasing outrage over the taxpayer rip-off. The reform bill died under threat of filibuster, but Congress passed a one-year patenting moratorium. Reformers vowed to return next year to complete the campaign.

* Pass "takings" legislation at the federal and state level to require compensation of developers whenever a government requires them to protect community values or public health and safety. The reality: Takings bills were rejected in the Congress and in over 30 states in the last two years. So far significant takings bills have only passed in three states.

* Give ranchers more say over grazing on public lands so that grazing privileges become property rights. The reality: Rangeland reform has majority support in Congress and in the country but was narrowly defeated by a Senate filibuster. Reform caught on in the West so that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., became a leading advocate of reform in the Senate. Interior's Secretary Babbitt moved to reform range management administratively.

* Halt designation of any more wilderness or national parks and open up existing parks and wilderness areas to commercial development. The reality: Congress passed the biggest wilderness and parks bill since the Alaska Lands Act when it approved the California Desert Protection Act.

Some preservation and reform efforts, such as Clinton's Option 9 Ancient Forest Plan and Babbitt's Rangeland Reform, are woefully inadequate. But while we may be disappointed and digging in to build on these modest reform efforts, the wise-use movement is wondering what ever happened to the army of angry citizens who were supposed to rise up and cast off 100 years of preservationists' victories.

All this is not to say that hard-fought environmental victories will never be undone. David Brower used to say that environmental victories are never permanent; there will always be some developer trying to undo even "permanent" designations like national parks.

I am concerned about the wise-use movement's attempts to cloak its agenda by talking about unfunded mandates and private-property rights. They hope clever takings campaigns will not be recognized for what they are - attempts to convert antigovernment sentiment into anti-environmental action.

I don't think the wise-use movement will last much longer, and I know that the environmental movement still enjoys strong popular support. But there is a trend that I think should alarm us all: growing public apathy. Voter turnout continues to fall, and disillusionment in the willingness of government to act in the public interest is at an all-time high.

Any mass movement relies on the public to rise up against injustice. If people believe they can't change the world because industry lobbyists control our public servants and industry campaign contributions drive their decisions, they drop out and their fears become real. They cede control of their government to special interests.

The environmental movement hasn't lost clout yet, but it could if enough people refuse to take responsibility for the health of the environment.

Bruce Hamilton, a former editor of High Country News in Lander, Wyo., in the 1970s, is national conservation director of the Sierra Club in San Francisco, California.

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