Environmental issues disappear into election-season smog

  • The Bush Environmental Calendar

    David Horsey

If you care about the environment, and you survived the presidential debates without running out into the backyard to scream at the heavens, you’re a bigger person than I. For those of you who missed them, the three debates included just one question on that "fringe issue" of what’s in the air we breathe, and whether we like trees in our national forests or just stumps. It came during the second debate, when a member of the audience asked George W. Bush how he would rate himself as an environmentalist.

Bush did a little verbal two-step about "off-road diesel engines," building a "hydrogen-generated automobile," and his "Healthy Forests" initiative: "What happens in those forests, because of lousy federal policy, is they grow to be — they are not — they’re not harvested."

If Bush was being coached through a hidden earpiece, as folks in the Internet chat rooms claim, he must have been having reception problems. Anyone who saw an easy opportunity for a comeback from John Kerry was disappointed. Kerry has earned a 92 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from his muddled response. He mocked the "Orwellian," smiley-face names the Bush administration has given its environmental rollbacks, but then came up with a Bushism of his own: "They pulled out of the global warming, declared it dead."

So much for making sense of environmental issues for the masses watching Campaign ’04 on TV.

In the debate, Kerry hinted at the damage Bush has done. But really, how much could happen in four short years? President Clinton charged into office with V.P. Al "Earth in Balance" Gore, and limped out of his first term having been whipped by ranchers on grazing reform, having signed the infamous "salvage rider," which allowed logging on the public forests without environmental review, and having just one new national monument on which to hang his environmental hat.

In fact, Bush has accomplished a remarkable amount during his first term. He obviously learned a thing or two from President Reagan, a self-described "sagebrush rebel" who put property-rights champion James Watt in charge of the Interior Department. Watt self-destructed, along with his dreams of plundering the public lands, largely because he was so honest about his intentions. Newt Gingrich, the anti-environment Republican speaker of the House in the mid-1990s, met a similar fate.

When the Bush-Cheney team landed in the White House, it tried a somewhat subtler strategy. Bush appointed a timber industry lobbyist to oversee the Forest Service, and an energy company lobbyist as number-two man in the Interior department, among others, and they went quickly — and quietly — to work.

The administration reneged on Clinton’s "Roadless Area Conservation Rule," which would have protected 58.5 million acres of national forest. They signed a deal with the state of Utah, stripping protection from 4.4 million acres of proposed wilderness. They pulled the guts out of the Northwest Forest Plan, which had put more than three-quarters of the region’s woods off limits to logging to protect salmon and spotted owls. And they bailed out on a plan to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone National Park.

At the same time, the administration pulled out the teeth of some of the nation’s fiercest environmental laws. The result was that industry could pollute more, cut more trees and drill more oil and gas wells. And that has earned Bush an "F" from the League of Conservation Voters — the first time ever for a president.

Unlike Watt and Gingrich, however, the Bush administration has done most of its work behind closed doors, and what the public hears is not what it gets. Bush’s plan to allow more air pollution is dubbed "Clear Skies," his plan to allow more logging, "Healthy Forests." His Interior secretary, Gale Norton, touts her "Four C’s" credo — "Communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation" — but her actions have prompted James Watt, her former boss, to comment, "Twenty years later, it sounds as if they’ve just dusted off the old work."

The problem with Bush’s strategy is that the say-one-thing-and-do-another routine only works if no one is paying attention. And for Westerners, it’s hard not to notice chain saws buzzing in the national forest in the backyard, or drill rigs and compressors chugging away in the front yard.

Norton’s "Four C’s" ring hollow when we’ve seen her deep-six a plan for limited energy development on Colorado’s Roan Plateau. The plan had broad support from local city councils, hunting organizations, ranchers and environmental groups, but it apparently wasn’t enough for the oil companies (HCN, 9/1/03).

In fact, the administration’s push for oil and gas has won it some surprising enemies. Tweeti Blancett, a rancher who ran Bush’s 2000 campaign in northern New Mexico, watched the administration’s energy policy roll onto the land her family has used for pasture for six generations. Now, she’s on a crusade to stop it.

The "green elephants" with the Republicans for Environmental Protection have decided not to endorse any candidate in the presidential election this year, saying Bush’s environmental record is just too abominable to stand behind.

Even the big media, which spent three years being too meek to challenge any of the president’s assertions, have started taking note. In mid-October, the Los Angeles Times published new evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office pushed to keep a natural gas drilling procedure known as hydraulic fracturing from being regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, despite concerns from government scientists (HCN, 10/27/03). Cheney’s old company, Halliburton, which has paid the V.P. $398,548 in deferred compensation since he took office, brings in $1.5 billion a year from the technology, according to the Times.

In the past few months, the Bush administration has made some small concessions, slowing development in a few spots in an apparent effort to win over the votes of hunters and fishermen. But as lifelong hunter Tom Reed told HCN recently, "For me and the guys I hunt with, it’s too little too late. One bone does not exactly make a supper."

Greg Hanscom is editor of High Country News.

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