While America waits for war, the environment suffers

  • Mark Wuerker

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the best of times, it’s tough to get the average American to pay attention to such arcane matters as whether it should be legal to sue the Forest Service if it fails to protect wilderness in Alaska, or whether to pay logging firms to thin one section of forest by letting them log another.

These are not the best of times. These are the duct-tape days, the Code Orange days, perhaps the pre-bellum days. Average Americans are otherwise occupied. If they are not consciously worried that they or theirs are about to be incinerated or poisoned, they are aware of the possibility, or at least of all the prattle about it. Whether they are for or against going to war, they are engrossed in the question.

Alaskan wilderness? Payment (or perhaps giveaways) for tree thinning? Even an oblique incursion for oil companies into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Drowned out.

All this is good news for those who want less wilderness, more logging, and oil wells in the Arctic refuge. In a democracy, you see, public opinion is always government’s fourth branch. If average Americans knew that the "forest stewardship" policy might lead to extensive and all-but-unregulated logging, most of them would probably oppose it. And there is little doubt about what average Americans want done with the Arctic Refuge: They want it left alone. But in this duct-tape, Code Orange era, there really is no public opinion on anything but war and terrorism.

Which does not quite mean that the anti-wilderness, pro-production faction — the Bush administration and the Republican leaders in Congress — can do whatever they want. They can do a lot, but not everything, thanks to a reality of American politics Americans prefer to ignore, if not deny — its elitism.

It’s a slur these days in some circles, but elitism is part of the theory of representative democracy. Don’t take my word for it; go ask Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and the other guys who wrote the Constitution, which created a system in which the people are sovereign, but their elected officials (an elite) make most decisions.

Consider what just happened in Congress, which failed to pass the domestic appropriations bills for the Fiscal Year, now almost half over, until mid-February, when it wrapped them all into one super-duper, $397.4 billion measure. The administration and the GOP leadership inserted "riders" into the measure that don’t appropriate a dime but do make policy, usually policy so unpopular that members of Congress would be loath to approve it if it stood alone as legislation.

Two riders concerned Alaska, whose senior senator, Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, introduced riders to suspend the "Roadless Rule" — the Clinton-era rule that protects from development 58.5 million acres of national forests — in the Tongass National Forest, to allow more logging there, and to open the Chugach National Forest to development.

At the very end of the process, these provisions were removed, thanks to the objections of a congressional elite — the 30 to 40 moderate Republicans unofficially led by Sherwood Boehlert of upstate New York. According to knowledgeable Capitol Hill operatives, Boehlert and his allies told Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. (Bill) Young of Florida, and then Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois (both Republicans have some moderate tendencies themselves) that they would oppose the bill unless those provisions were deleted. With almost all the Democrats ready to vote "no" over the same issues, the Republican leadership capitulated.

But the Boehlert rebels gave way on the Alaska wilderness legal challenge, on "pre-drilling" activities in the Arctic refuge, and on the forest stewardship rider that significantly changes the way the Forest Service awards some timber contracts, possibly leading to much more extensive logging.

One reason for their failure is that in negotiations, no side ever gets everything. Another is that the Arctic refuge and forest proposals came from the Bush administration, making it harder for the Republican leaders to object. And finally, the Republican moderates were less resolute over the forest issue simply because many of them didn’t know much about it.

Over the years, environmental advocates have made much of the Tongass National Forest, and of the Roadless Rule. Among this elite — moderate Republican congressmen — those are household words, as they are to the environmental activists in their home districts, who would be on the phone and activating their letters-to-the editor campaigns had those riders passed.

By comparison, forest stewardship was invisible. Environmentalists simply had not made a big deal of it. Furthermore, nobody really knows what its impact will be. Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee said it would permit "the total deforestation of national forests," but even Michael Francis of the Wilderness Society, while fearing the worst, said, "We’re really not going to know how bad the damage will be for years."

The elites, in this case, were rather like average Americans — preoccupied with other matters.

Jon Margolis reports on Washington, D.C., from his home in Vermont.

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