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The Planet
Bush Vulnerable on Environment

Sierra Club goes on offense to challenge president

By John Byrne Barry

President Bush took a break from his vacation in August to visit the Northwest and shore up his badly tarnished environmental credentials. He came away with a black eye.

He flew into Portland to promote his so-called Healthy Forests initiative, but the Sierra Club scooped him, holding a press conference the day before, denouncing the president’s plan for failing to protect communities at risk from fire while giving away money that should be spent on fire prevention to the timber industry.

He visited Washington to plug the administration’s efforts to protect salmon, but was met by protesters assailing him for threatening salmon (and democracy, among other things). There were so many protesters, in fact, that he cancelled his only public appearance in the Seattle-Tacoma area and flew instead to present himself as the friend of the salmon at the remote Ice Harbor Dam, one of the major salmon killers in the Pacific Northwest.

The president’s public support has dropped dramatically, according to recent public opinion research. Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope links the decline to the quagmire in Iraq, the stalled economy, and the beating the Bush administration has taken of late for its anti-environmental actions.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz acknowledges that "the environment is the single issue on which Republicans in general—and President Bush in particular—are most vulnerable." Nevertheless, Bush is devoting attention to the environment because he knows it matters a lot to many sought-after swing voters, like suburban women.

Of course, it would be easier for the president to look pro-environment if he weren’t simultaneously unleashing some of the most anti-environmental policies in decades. As Sierra Club Legislative Director Debbie Sease puts it: "The Bush pattern is to do something harmful to the environment and call it something helpful."

(Or as one satirical bumper-sticker making its way around the Internet says, "Bush/Cheney ‘04: Putting the "con" in conservatism.")

For example, in August, the Bush administration released its final ruling weakening the Clean Air Act by allowing older factories to expand without installing modern pollution control technologies. The administration tried to put a good spin on it, saying that "pollution will not increase as a result of this rule."

But increasingly, the administration is not getting away with it. The San Francisco Chronicle called the weakening of the Clean Air Act, "the most damaging rollback in its 30-year history." Even the Billings Gazette was stinging in its criticism: "The Bush administration eased a series of important environmental regulations in a quiet flurry of late-summer activity, delivering almost every rule change on corporate America’s wish list."

Meanwhile, Mother Jones and Vanity Fair have published exposés of the Bush administration’s environmental record. In Mother Jones, Osha Gray Davidson wrote: "No president has gone after the nation’s environmental laws with the same fury as George W. Bush—and none has been so adept at staying under the radar." Davidson said that the Bush administration is filled with "anti-regulatory zealots deep into its rank and file" who come from the industries they are charged with regulating.

In "Sale of the Wild," Vanity Fair’s Michael Shnayerson zeroed in on one of those zealots—J. Steven Griles, the deputy interior secretary, a former lobbyist for the coal, oil, and gas industries. Shnayerson wrote: "Every administration rewards its friends, but never has there been such a wholesale giveaway of government agencies to the very industries they’re meant to oversee."

Shnayerson’s story was accompanied by a photo spread of Griles and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton in the great outdoors. Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter wrote, "They both look like Sierra Club veterans: Norton in trekking gear and a Patagonia-cum-Smokey the Bear outfit, and Griles on horseback, resembling some latter-day Theodore Roosevelt."

President Bush, too, has been careful to schedule plenty of photo-ops in front of national parks and forests. During his August forays from his Crawford ranch, Bush took a well-choreographed hike in California’s Santa Monica Mountains and talked up plans to upgrade national parks. These attempts to look pro-environment reflect the advice of pollster Luntz, who outlined a strategy last fall advising Republicans to counter the perception that Republicans are anti-environmental by showing their love of the outdoors.

For the Sierra Club, the key is going after Bush as in Portland and Seattle, getting there ahead of him to frame the story, and going on the offense wherever possible. "Bush is playing on people’s fears and lowering expectations," says Pope. "We have to counter this strategy, raise people’s hopes, and remind them that we have a proven track record of solving our environmental problems."

For a thorough look at Bush’s anti-environmental actions, go to www.sierraclub.org/wwatch.


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