Preparing to battle over the environment

Copyright 2001 Nando Media
Copyright 2001 Christian Science Monitor Service


By BRAD KNICKERBOCKER, The Christian Science Monitor

MEDFORD, Ore. (January 10, 2001 2:53 p.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com) - During the compacted, contentious last two weeks of the White House transition, environmental activists and their opponents are marshaling forces to sway the public and dominate national policy for the next four years.

Each has a national campaign going. The former are pressuring lame-duck President Clinton to burnish his green legacy. The latter, cheered by the nomination of conservatives Gale Norton and Spencer Abraham to head the Interior and Energy departments, are pushing President-elect Bush to dismantle Clinton's efforts to preserve federal lands from development.

With a closely divided electorate and Congress, it's not clear which side will prevail.

As Republicans prepare to control both the executive and legislative branches of federal government, national environmental groups are better armed than they have ever been. They've been able to raise large sums in order to conduct mass publicity campaigns. And they have the tactical advantage - similar to the situation 20 years ago when Ronald Reagan took office - of being able to energize their troops in opposition to an administration they can paint as likely to be less friendly to their cause.

The "wise use" movement - industry groups and rural Americans, mostly in the West - sees a new Republican administration as presenting their best chance in eight years to open up public lands to more logging, ranching and mining, while providing greater protections for private property. At the same time, they are concerned about some rumored sub-Cabinet appointees who may have latent green tendencies. And they know that a small but important bloc of moderate, pro-environment Republicans (mostly Easterners) could hold the balance in Congress.

The most contentious issue in recent days has been Clinton's setting aside nearly 60 million acres of national forest land in 39 states as "roadless areas," meaning that virtually all development is outlawed.

Environmentalists are ecstatic. Referring to the nearly 600 public hearings held on the proposal over the past 15 months and about 2 million public comments filed, Ken Rait of the Oregon Natural Resources Council calls it "participatory democracy at its finest." A large majority of those comments from individuals supported keeping vast areas roadless.

But critics say that apparent outpouring of pro-environment sentiment was largely orchestrated by two dozen environmental groups, which had gathered nearly $10 million in foundation grants to mount a "Heritage Forests Campaign." Environmentalists say this merely levels the political playing field and that mining, oil and timber interests spend that much and more on candidates for federal office.

In any case, opponents of organized environmentalism have been left scrambling.

Over the weekend, an estimated 1,000 loggers, ranchers, miners and outdoor recreationalists gathered in southern Oregon to sound off in opposition to government regulation of federal land. In addition to the new roadless order for national forests (one of the largest set-asides of federal land in U.S. history), environmentalists are urging Clinton to add to his already-long list of designated national monuments.

At the Red Lion Inn in Medford, Ore., Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association instructed a room packed with people in cowboy boots and hats in the art of lobbying their elected representatives.

"People, this is not a doily-tossing contest. We have to keep the pressure on," said Cushman of Battle Ground, Wash., a boisterous veteran of the political wars over natural resources. Outside the inn log trucks and farm rigs circled, horns blasting in response to sign-waving people more used to heaving hay bales than protesting.

Many rural Westerners are counting on political allies in Congress and statehouses to champion their cause.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, says the roadless rule "will be subject to immediate court challenge by a wide variety of interests." One of those is Idaho's Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who calls it "absolutely flawed public policy that has stiffed the states."

Bush could not simply cancel Clinton's roadless ruling, however. To do so would take another rulemaking process, including public hearings around the country - a year-long proceeding that no doubt would be hard-fought and politically costly to a new Bush administration.

Senator Murkowski and others also want to amend the Antiquities Act of 1906, the law that has allowed presidents going back to Theodore Roosevelt to establish national monuments by proclamation. Conservatives say the act was meant to protect historic sites, archaeological treasures, and other small areas, not the vast tracts of land that Clinton has designated over the objections of many rural Westerners and a GOP-controlled Congress.

"These are our lands," declares Jack Walker, a commissioner in Jackson County, Ore. "They don't belong to Clinton or his legacy."

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