Baked Alaska?

Fearing a return to the days of James Watt, green activists mobilize to spike Bush's environmental nominees.

Published January 11, 2001 3:14PM (EST)

As George W. Bush heads to the White House, green activists are preparing to take several of the president-elect's Cabinet nominees to the mat over their positions on the environment.

The activists view Bush's appointees, particularly former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton, as "a declaration of war" and have vowed to block her confirmation. They're not much happier with attorney general pick John Ashcroft, or would-be Energy Secretary Spence Abraham. Bush has also appointed a 38-member transition team on interior issues, which the New York Times described as reading like a "Who's Who of representatives of affected industries." The Wall Street Journal called the group Bush/Cheney Inc. because of its coziness with major industries such as logging and mining.

Environmentalists are launching their assault on Bush's nominees at the same time that lame-duck president Bill Clinton has been moving swiftly and provocatively during his remaining days in office to enact ambitious environmental policies. Clinton has used his executive powers to set aside vast areas of American wilderness, infuriating industry leaders and state politicians in the process. Earlier this week, Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck barred the cutting of all old-growth trees on public lands, a policy that would reduce by half the amount of wood cut on federal lands.

Clinton's announcement last week that he was putting an end to most logging on more than 58 million acres of national forest land outraged Republicans in Western states and loggers who say they will be hurt by the new regulations. The new "roadless rules" prohibit new road construction on federal lands without roads, and most cutting and removal of timber in those areas. On Tuesday, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne sued to block the new rules. President-elect Bush has also promised to review Clinton's whirlwind of 11th hour regulations.

But some green Republicans praised Clinton's surprise move. "I am pleased that the president has agreed to carry on President Teddy Roosevelt's legacy by establishing a policy to protect the untouched roadless areas of our national forests," says Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., adding, "Commercial mining and logging already has damaged the existing 400,000 miles of roads, jeopardized safe public access, and degraded water quality in our nation's forests."

Clinton's actions reflect both policy and politics. Throughout his White House tenure, the Clinton administration has gone head to head with Republicans over the environment. When the Republicans retook control of Congress in 1994, Clinton consistently fought to kill provisions tacked onto spending bills that he said would adversely affect the environment -- and was willing to let the legislative process grind to a halt to do so. In fact, Clinton's unwillingness to budge on environmental issues was one of the factors that led to the massive government shutdown of 1995.

In his final days, Clinton has moved urgently -- some would say desperately -- to shore up his legacy with acts that would dwarf his impeachment and the cloud of scandal that surrounded much of his two terms as president. His action to save millions of acres of pristine forest, like his down-to-the-wire negotiations on Middle East peace and his pardoning of some nonviolent drug offenders, carries the stamp of deep personal conviction. But at the same time, his last-minute maneuvering is also a shrewd political move. By staking out a bold pro-environmental position, Clinton is laying a trap for Republicans, forcing the GOP either to publicly overturn his regulations -- and thus risk being seen by the American public as the party of environmental destruction -- or have to live with what they view as onerous and extreme anti-growth regulations.

And once again, the GOP seems willing to play the role of environmental bad guy. While Bush's selection to head the Environmental Protection Agency, New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, is seen as a moderate, environmentalists are fuming over the selection of the hard-line Norton, whose association with controversial Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt is enough to make environmentalists spit nails every time her name is mentioned. Norton has long championed drilling and exploration for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR, one of the totems of the American environmental movement. They are also focusing on Attorney General-designate Ashcroft, who received consistently low marks from environmental groups while he was a senator. The League of Conservation Voters gave Ashcroft a zero score in each of its four most recent annual scorecards of congressional votes on issues that affect the environment.

Clinton's actions in his final days will help Democrats distinguish themselves from Republicans on the environment -- an issue on which Americans hold views closer to Democrats than Republicans, polls show. They also ensure that a fight will continue for years to come over the environment, both in the political arena and in the courts.

As expected, the fight over national forest lands officially entered the courts Tuesday when Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, filed suit in federal court to overturn the executive order Clinton signed last week. Kempthorne blasted the Clinton administration for setting aside federal land by fiat, without holding public hearings or conducting significant economic and environmental impact reports on how the set-asides would affect the local economies.

"Day in and day out, Idaho's people and land face unrelenting challenges in the form of federal edicts and control," Kempthorne said in his State of the State address Monday. "And just last week, in its waning days, the Clinton administration announced its intent to implement its roadless plan, ignoring the bipartisan concerns raised by the Idaho Land Board and many states. We will go to court once again to prevent this misguided and flawed federal policy from taking effect."

Kempthorne's chief of staff, H.D. Palmer, says the problem is particularly acute in Idaho because a certain portion of state lands is set aside for revenue generation. The money raised from logging on those state lands is used to fund Idaho's public schools. But, Palmer says, the access to those state lands is blocked by federal land, and Clinton's pronouncement last week would make it impossible to reach those state-owned lands.

"This plan could very well shortchange Idaho's schoolchildren," Kempthorne said Tuesday in announcing the state's suit against the federal government.

While Kempthorne and others have tried to paint the issue as one of local control, the environment has a strong national constituency -- a fact not lost on Clinton and the Democrats.

This is not the first time Clinton has embroiled himself in federal land battles. Last year, the president declared thousands of acres of Western lands as national monuments, enraging local officials who denounced the moves as heavy-handed interventions that short-circuited ongoing local negotiations between environmental and industry leaders and local politicians. In 1994, Republicans tried in vain to overturn the Endangered Species Act, saying the law put onerous restrictions on property owners.

Clinton's last-minute environmental moves are far from subtle, but political victories are not often won by nuanced discussion. And heading into 2002, a major campaign issue for Democrats is likely to be portraying the GOP as the party that is out to despoil Mother Nature.

The résumés of Bush's environmental team don't exactly make it hard for Demos to do just that. Bush and Cheney themselves both come from oil backgrounds -- Bush was a former oilman in Texas, and Cheney the former CEO of Halliburton Inc., a Texas-based oil-services company. Bush harvested $2.7 million from energy and natural resource companies during his presidential campaign, including $1.76 million from the oil and gas industry, according the Center for Responsive Policy. The organization, which keeps tabs on political contributions, estimates the Bush campaign also raked in $191,000 from the mining industry.

Many find it outrageous that Bush selected former Michigan Sen. Spenser Abraham to head his Energy Department, a bureaucracy he once tried to abolish. And then, of course, there's Norton.

If Bush's appointment of Norton was meant to send a message to environmental groups, the message would be somewhere between "things are going to be different now" and "drop dead" -- and considerably closer to the latter. Throughout the campaign, Bush consistently talked about opening ANWR for oil exploration, a move Vice President Al Gore vigorously opposed. Norton has long been a champion of Bush's position. During her time in the Interior Department in the 1980s under Watt, she unsuccessfully lobbied President Reagan to drill in the reserve. Norton was later hired by Watt as an attorney for the Mountain States Legal Foundation. The group has been described by the New York Times as "a sort of right-wing answer to the Sierra Club." It vigorously fought the Endangered Species Act and is generally seen as promoting pro-business policies.

Norton is also the founder of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a Colorado organization that environmentalists say is a shill for corporate interests.

Norton's nomination has mobilized environmental groups to fight her confirmation. A number of groups, including the Sierra Club, have scheduled a press conference Friday in Washington to officially launch the effort to kill Norton's nomination. Although some activists privately concede that blocking Norton is an uphill battle, conservation groups are pulling out all the stops.

"There's a tremendous opposition to this woman's extremist agenda," says the Sierra Club's Allen Mattison. "Bush has a great opportunity here. He talks about wanting to be a uniter and a healer, and protecting our environment is a great way to do that. But he's squandering it by putting these non-mainstream appointees in."

Norton's selection has irked some Republicans as well. Martha Marks, founder and president of the Republicans for Environmental Protection, said she has been discouraged by Bush's approach to the environment, in particular with Norton's selection. "Conservation is conservative. It's not conservative to squander our resources," she said. "I think there's a tremendous political risk for Bush. His environmental team is not environmental, it's anti-environmental. You can't look at this team and say Bush is expressing any concern for conservation."

While environmentalists across the country continue their anti-Norton drumbeat, some who have worked with her say she is not the monster they're making her out to be. Christine Gregoire, Washington state's Democratic attorney general, told the New York Times that she believed Norton was "able to work very well across partisan barriers, and I think that's precisely what that agency needs."

But it's not just Norton environmentalists are worried about. They're are also concerned about lower-level appointments at the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the attorney general's role in environmental protection.

"I certainly know how much we were able to accomplish here beneath the radar, and they could undo just as much as we did," says one Interior Department source. "It's imperceptible just how the type of person sitting at these desks, the way they approach the day to day work, makes an immeasurable difference in the way public lands are managed, laws are enforced and how species are protected or not protected."

In the past, the Justice Department, under Attorney General Janet Reno and Lois Schiffer, assistant attorney general of environment and natural resources, has been aggressive in fighting these types of suits. But it remains unclear how aggressively the department would defend a suit like the one filed this week by Idaho Gov. Kempthorn.

Activists say the new lawsuit underscores the importance of the attorney general's office in the enforcement of environmental laws, a crucial role that they say is too often ignored by many environmental groups and the media.

Though much of the opposition to Ashcroft has come from civil rights and abortion rights groups, environmental activists have also joined the fight against the former Missouri senator's nomination. In a prepared statement, the Sierra Club said Ashcroft "has an exceedingly poor environmental voting record and is openly hostile to most environmental laws."

"The agencies can't go to court by themselves. The Justice Department must be involved in it," Schiffer says of the Justice Department's role in enforcing environmental laws. Schiffer is careful not to criticize Ashcroft, Bush's choice for attorney general, focusing instead on Janet Reno's commitment to enforcement of environmental protection laws. "[Reno] has always been a very strong supporter of our environmental division and environmental program and sought effective resources as it goes through the rest of the process," she says.

Schiffer says funding levels may provide the best clues about the new administration's commitment to enforcement of environmental regulations. While budgets for various agencies may remain at similar levels in terms of overall resources, she says, it is not uncommon to underfund the enforcement wing of the agency as a way of defanging it. "Resources have an effect on how much enforcement people can do. In a number of states, budgets for environmental protection have been cut back. Obviously, that has an impact on what kind of inspections can be done, and how well we can enforce those laws," she says.

While not criticizing Ashcroft directly, Schiffer does express concern about maintaining her office's reputation within the environmental community for vigorously enforcing the nation's environmental laws.

"The American public broadly supports strong environmental protection," she says. "The public wants clean water, clean air and clean land. The actions that we take are in service of that very strong desire of the American people. That interest of the American people will be what assures strong environmental protection."

There is no shortage of groups on the left that are opposing Ashcroft, but it is Norton who has become the chief target of environmentalists. They view Norton, in Mattison's words, as "James Watt in a skirt," and say her support of drilling in Alaska and her embrace of laws that allow companies to self-police themselves to determine whether they are complying with environmental requirements make her unqualified to run the Interior Department.

The opposition to Norton and other Bush appointees, however, doesn't mean that green activists have suddenly abandoned their harsh criticism of the Clinton administration. National Resources Defense Council spokesman Allen Metrick says much of the blame for the current talk of drilling in Alaska is because the Clinton-Gore administration never had a coherent energy policy.

"Certainly, there wasn't enough action on alternative energy sources. There hasn't been a real comprehensive energy policy in this country, and that's leaving a gap that's now going to be filled by the despoiling of some of the last few places which don't need destroying to solve our energy crisis," Metrick says. "The incoming team is going to try to fill what they perceive as an energy crisis by highly speculative drilling in irreplaceable lands that will yield small amounts of crude oil. It won't have any impact on the price of gas, but it gives them the excuse to go ahead with this rape and plunder of the land to benefit a few large campaign contributors."

Metrick calls the nomination of Norton "a slap in the face to every American who said they like the idea of clean air, clean water, good parks, open space, undestroyed open land."

Though Metrick has harsh words for both Norton and Ashcroft, he is much more sanguine about New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, Bush's choice to run the EPA.

"The least concerning appointee is probably Christie Whitman," he says, "We've had mixed experience with her." Coming from an environmentalist, that's a compliment. A similar guarded optimism about Whitman was echoed by other environmentalists, including one source in the EPA who will soon be working under her. But the source says that in the mind of conservationists, Whitman may have been appointed to the wrong job.

"If you look at her record, she would probably make a pretty good secretary of the Interior," the source says. "She passed a $1 billion bond to purchase open space in New Jersey. She also fought to stop ocean dumping. She comes from the New Jersey hunt country, and she's a Rockefeller Republican in terms of land preservation."

But the source says Whitman's EPA credentials are a little less secure, noting that she eliminated the office of the environmental prosecutor in her home state and changed many of the more onerous industry regulations into self-auditing laws, a philosophy shared by Bush and Norton. "That's everything the EPA does, so as far as enforcement, I don't see that she'll be too aggressive."

Doug Crandall, a former lobbyist with the American Forest and Paper Association who was named chief of staff to the House Resources Committee's subcommittee on forests and forest health, laments what he calls the politicization of environmental issues, which have suddenly been splashed across the nation's front pages. He says the Clinton administration has acted recklessly in its efforts to protect the environment, and that the Clinton maneuvering, and Bush's likely retaliation, may hinder bipartisan efforts to strike a compromise.

"It's obvious with this flurry of announcements of new policies and regulations that they are trying to make it difficult for the next administration to do anything," Crandall says. "The problem is, everything they're doing isn't bad. It's how they're doing it that's bad. I don't think you can make long-lasting, effective policy in such an overtly political manner that bypasses a lot of normal processes and public involvement."

Crandall says the moves by the administration are simply deepening the divide between rural and urban America. "If you look at the maps from the election, one thing you see is a real rural/urban political divide," he says. "These new policies adversely affect rural America, and are going to deepen that divide."

With very few major issues separating the deadlocked Democrats and Republicans in a pragmatic, centrist time, the political battle over the environment may prove to be decisive in establishing which party takes control.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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