Bush under attack on environment
Critics say policies
favor business by easing protections
By Michael Kilian
Published February 2, 2003
WASHINGTON -- Lost in the national concern over a stagnant economy,
terrorism and the looming invasion of Iraq has been a hard-fought, two-year war between President Bush and the nation's leading
environmental and conservation groups over what they charge is a dangerous reversal of federal protection and preservation
As these groups have been dismayed to discover, it's a struggle the administration largely has been winning.
It's an effort to undo, rewrite or diminish a broad array of environmental regulations, protections and initiatives, the critics
of these rules and regulations date not only to the Clinton White House but to the Republican Nixon administration, which
created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Bush insists that the changes the administration has made and
the new initiatives it has undertaken have improved environmental protection and enhanced conservation. And the administration's
supporters say some earlier regulations were heavy-handed and anti-business.
environmentalists say his talk is not the same as his actions.
"Environmental protections have been challenged before,"
said Gregory Wetstone, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But never have they faced a threat as
far-reaching, insidious and destructive as the one posed by the Bush administration."
administration argues that more can be accomplished on behalf of the environment by cooperating with industry and developers,
working together to find solutions that benefit the economy, as well as the environment.
EPA chief defends policies
are trying to break down the mind-set that environmental issues are zero-sum, that somebody has to lose for someone to win,"
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, a moderate Republican and former New Jersey governor, said in an interview.
the idea that the way you measure environmental success is, `How many penalties have you imposed? How many lawsuits have you
brought? How many people have you put in jail?'" Whitman said. "To my mind, and the president's mind, the question is, `Is
the air cleaner, the water purer and the land better protected?' Those are the real measures."
the administration's approach has often taken the form of negotiating court settlements with industries that have sued over
federal regulations. In one recent case, for example, the Interior Department took the side of a Chicago-owned cat litter
clay mining company when a Nevada county denied it a permit for a processing plant.
Sometimes the administration will
simply not appeal a case, instead ordering the agency to reconsider the rule. That, said National Wildlife Federation Vice
President Jamie Clark, "gums up the system worse than before. You can bring an agency to its knees that way."
times, critics say, the administration will call up existing environmental protection measures for review and then tinker
with the provisions, as it has done with clean air and clean water regulations.
The Bush team often places its reconsideration
of environmental rules in a larger context--saying, for example, that oil drilling in the Arctic is vital for national security
because it will reduce dependence on foreign fuel, or that its new logging policies help prevent forest fires.
are subtle issues," said Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary of the Interior for policy, management and budget. "They're very
complex. We take them on a case-by-case basis and we want everyone concerned with an issue to be involved."
Secretary Gale Norton, a one-time protege of Watt's who formerly worked for his pro-development Mountain States Legal Foundation,
declares herself a conservationist on almost every issue. Norton's Washington office is decorated with photographs of her
in outdoor clothes at locales in the great American wilds.
"I stress the `Four Cs' of communication, consultation and
cooperation, all in the service of conservation," Norton said of her approach to making environmental policy.
her cooperative efforts was a recent administration compromise proposal that would overturn a Clinton White House ban on snowmobiles
in Yellowstone National Park in response to an industry lawsuit filed against the prohibition.
Under this move, snowmobilers
may continue to have access to the park, but restrictions have been imposed on the number using the main entrance. The new
policy also gives preference to snowmobiles with quieter, more pollution-free four-cycle engines over more dangerous and dirty
Norton also promulgated a new Healthy Forests Initiative that allows private logging companies to
harvest healthy trees on public lands as a reward for clearing out brush and undergrowth that feed forest fires.
leaders say Norton and the administration have taken a balanced approach to environmental issues.
`Look at the track
"There were a lot of people who had a lot of anxiety thinking she would be very hard-line pro-business or pro-development,"
said Jack Gerard, president of the National Mining Association. "But you look at the track record, and my view of it is that
you see a pretty balanced approach."
The environmentalists are having none of it.
"It is disingenuous to promote
increased logging packaged as [forest fire] fuel reduction," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "If the Bush administration
is serious about protecting communities from forest fires, it should focus resources on real fuel reduction near at-risk communities,
instead of opening more loopholes for the timber industry."
Ron Tipton, vice president of the National Parks Conservation
Association, a citizen watchdog group, added: "This is the first time we have listed administration policy as a threat to
Asked for a list of its complaints with the Bush administration, the Natural Resources Defense Council
produced nearly 80 of them.
These included a National Park Service decision to allow natural-gas drilling on the Padre
Island National Seashore, a Park Service move to reconsider bans on personal watercraft at eight national parks, Interior's
closing of a field office coordinating the restoration of the Everglades, a U.S. Forest Service decision allowing logging
roads in public tracts of 250 acres or less and a decision by the EPA to allow coal mining companies to dump "fill material"
from mountaintop mining sites into rivers and streams.
Other actions that have served as rallying points for many groups
were Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto accords on global warming, continuing efforts to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness,
resistance to implementation of the Clinton "roadless" plan for national forests and the proposed exemption of the Defense
Department from environmental laws.
In what Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) denounced as a "holiday sneak attack," the administration
chose late hours during the Thanksgiving through New Year's holiday season to make public a flurry of controversial environmental
decisions that were immediately attacked by watchdog groups.
One opened the way for local governments to build roads
across publicly owned wildlands using an 1867 mining promotion law. Another removed EPA protection from "isolated wetlands"--streams,
ponds and marshes not connected to a navigable waterways. Yet another allowed existing coal-fired power plants to expand without
installing modern pollution-control devices.
"The rhetoric you get from this administration is largely pro-environment,"
said the National Parks Conservation Association's Tipton.
Bush has throughout his term proclaimed himself a protector
of the environment.
To back up that claim, the White House has put out a compendium of 83 administration achievements
on the environmental and conservation front.
Among these are a "brownfields cleanup" for contaminated
industrial sites, the Healthy Forests Initiative, an Everglades restoration project, coastal water protection and Bush's Clear
Skies program, which limits industrial emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, and leaves it to industry
to decide how to arrive at these limits.
Whitman said critics are deliberately overlooking the administration's progress.
"There seems to be a mind-set that if this administration proposes it, it can't be good," she said. Environmental groups attacked
an EPA acid rain reduction program that offered industry incentives then afterward admitted, though not very loudly, that
it worked, she said.
Administration supporters also note that Bush, in his State of the Union address, proposed a new
program to develop pollution-free cars.
From Norton on down, a refrain of the administration is that major Washington-based
environmental and conservation groups are trying to stir up controversies over Bush policies as a means of raising funds and
staying in business.
Whitman cited a furor earlier in the term over an administration decision to reverse a last-minute
Clinton decision to reduce dramatically the amount of arsenic allowable in drinking water, even though the old standard was
"Arsenic was just a classic example of a scare tactic that was totally out of line," she said. "They
went out and made it look like we were trying to make everybody drink arsenic. It was ridiculous."
With control of
both houses of Congress now in Republican hands, the political landscape for environmental issues has changed dramatically
in the administration's favor.
Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, an independent and champion of environmental causes,
has been replaced as chairman of the Senate Environment Committee by conservative Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). An often conciliatory
Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah) has been replaced as chairman of the House Resources Committee by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.),
who has clashed with environmentalists.
The one area where environmentalists are gaining ground is in the courts. By
filing suits or intervening in ongoing legal disputes, the groups have been able to bring judicial scrutiny to Bush policies
and practices, and win decisions.
As the next presidential election draws nearer, environmentalists hope their issues
will register higher on the public's radar screens.