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Sierra Magazine
Bill Clinton: Does He Deserve Your Vote?

He's praised us, betrayed us, ignored us, rewarded us. Now the hour of reckoning is at hand.

by Paul Rauber

On the face of it, environmental voters do not have a very difficult choice in this year's presidential election. Consumer hero Ralph Nader is running on the Green Party ticket in a handful of states, but is perversely avoiding actual campaigning. Ross Perot, who as of this writing was coyly gearing up to run again, sees environmental protection as a luxury. "If there s a choice between survival and protecting the planet," he told The Washington Post, "we will pillage and plunder the planet."

Bob Dole, the Republican candidate, has the worst environmental voting record of any nominee of either major party since Earth Day 1970. As rated by the League of Conservation Voters, Dole has deteriorated steadily over the years, from a one-time high of 49 percent in 1979-1980 to a rock-bottom zero in 1995- 1996.

Dole goes beyond merely voting the wrong way, however, to actively leading his own pillaging and plundering expeditions. He was point man, for example, in Congress 1990 attempt to weaken the Clean Air Act. More recently, as Senate majority leader he led the campaign for "regulatory reform," which would allow pollution to continue if its cleanup costs could be jiggled to appear even a single dollar higher than the price of its health effects. He is also the main pusher of takings legislation, which would require the government to pay industries to obey environmental laws. (Exxon is already testing "takings" in court, demanding compensation from the public because its Exxon Valdez has been prevented from returning to Alaskan waters.)

Dole boasts that his administration would "have common-sense environmental policies, not policies that put thousands and thousands of people out of work." For Dole, "common sense" means limiting by bureaucratic fiat the numbers of animals and plants that might be designated "endangered," and continuing subsidies for destructive cattle-grazing on public lands in the West. The combination of a Dole presidency and a Republican Congress would open the gates to everything the 104th Congress attempted to push through, and then some. Oil rigs would go up in the Arctic Refuge. The Endangered Species Act would be vastly weakened. Millions of acres of redrock wilderness in Utah would be permanently opened to mining and industrial development. The Environmental Protection Agency s budget to enforce environmental laws would be further slashed, and the passage of takings laws and regulatory reform would make future environmental health and safety legislation a hollow--and expensive--joke.

Despite the dire prospects of a Dole presidency, many environmentalists are still squeamish about supporting President Bill Clinton. This comes as a surprise to observers outside the environmental community, who see him and Al Gore as green stalwarts. In polls, Clinton outscores Dole on the environment more than on any other issue. After all, Clinton has come through on most of the specific environmental promises he made four years ago. He retained the ban on offshore oil drilling in California; increased funding for solar and renewable energy; mandated federal agencies to buy recycled paper and other materials; supported aid to international family-planning programs; and signed legislation preserving the California desert. He has also vetoed many anti-environmental bills, at the cost of twice temporarily shutting down the federal government.

Clinton stuck by his campaign pledges on a number of other issues, but was thwarted by a recalcitrant Congress. He signed the Convention on Biodiversity from the Rio Summit, for example, but Congress refused to ratify it. On Superfund reform, Bob Dole led efforts to block a compromise position that was worked out between environmental groups and chemical companies with the support of the White House. Congress also rejected presidential proposals for an anti-global-warming carbon tax, and for tax incentives for renewable energy.

The Clinton administration also distinguished itself by placing strong environmentalists in positions of power, starting with Vice President Al Gore, who has been a consistent--and often insistent--voice in the White House for environmental concerns. Other standouts (even though the Sierra Club has not always agreed with their actions) have been Carol Browner in the EPA, Mollie Beattie at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (who died in June of brain cancer), Bruce Babbitt in Interior, and Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth.

Why then does the Clinton administration seem like such a disappointment? Part of the problem has to do with the enormous expectations the environmental community held for it, especially after 12 years of more or less hostile Republican administrations. These hopes seemed well justified early on, when the new President and Vice President met with leaders of the green groups, and raided their staffs to fill top positions in the new administration. Many saw the inauguration of Bill Clinton as the dawn of an environmental Golden Age.

That optimistic vision crumbled almost immediately. In March 1993, at the first whisper of opposition to Clinton's 1994 budget plan to reduce taxpayer subsidies for grazing, mining, and logging on public lands, he dropped the issue like a hot branding iron. Subsequently, Babbitt failed in two attempts to hike grazing fees administratively, with the result that the fees actually decreased by 19 percent last year.

The unhappy realization that the environment was not a "top tier" concern in the Clinton White House was cemented by the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and 300 other environmental groups opposed the pact, warning that it would lead to more pollution on the Mexican border, not less, and that its provisions might be used to weaken U.S. environmental laws. These qualms were dismissed by the White House, which wanted so much to gain ratification of the treaty that it delayed the phaseout of the ozone-destroying pesticide methyl bromide in order to win the votes of legislators from Florida and California.

(Two years after the passage of NAFTA, border pollution has actually worsened, and Mexican funding for environmental cleanup has declined.)

Despite a nominally green White House and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the only major environmental legislation to come out of Washington in the first two years of Clinton's administration was the California Desert Protection Act. "The President has yet to find the environmental issue that he thought was worth a major investment of his time and energy," complained Jim Maddy, then-president of the League of Conservation Voters, at Earth Day 1994. While the White House focused on health care reform, urgent environmental priorities like reauthorizations of the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts languished. By the time of the Republican sweep in 1994, any chance for seizing the initiative had long since passed. The major environmental bills were hijacked by anti-environmental zealots, and suddenly the environmental movement was on the defensive. Rather than basking in a Golden Age, activists found themselves struggling to stave off an environmental Stone Age.

While the Sierra Club charged the Gingrich/Dole 104th Congress with waging a "War on the Environment," the congressional leadership spun the conflict the other way by labeling the quest for grazing, mining, and logging reform a "War on the West." Clinton characteristically attempted to satisfy all sides, seeking environmental reform of public-lands management without any attendant economic dislocation. This was the goal of "Option 9," the result of Clinton's much-heralded "Forest Summit," a plan that promised to keep northwestern mills buzzing while simultaneously providing protection for streambeds and other ecologically critical areas. Environmentalists were not thrilled--the plan gave endangered species only an 80 percent chance of survival, and failed to set up any inviolable old-growth preserves--but most groups swallowed the plan as a (barely) acceptable compromise.

Rather than seeking support for his environmental positions among sympathetic urban Westerners, however, Clinton persisted in trying to win over hostile rural constituencies. The Los Angeles Times recorded his comments to a town meeting in Billings, Montana, that exemplified this approach:

"The Interior Department made a mistake," the President apologized. "They proposed as a negotiating strategy raising the grazing fees too high in 1993. It was wrong. But after strenuous objection by a number of people . . . we immediately dropped it." Clinton told the crowd that he still wants to change the archaic 1872 Mining Law, which gives away mineral resources to the first corporation that asks, "but I don't think we should do it to the extent that we put people out of business." As for forest issues, he said, "The truth is that the timber people ought to be for me. . . . We are giving landowners, especially small landowners, more flexibility." Clinton pointed to the relaxation of restrictions on salvage logging in the national forests, and boasted how he had sought to quickly resolve suits over logging of old-growth forests in the Northwest "so we can do what we can to preserve the forest but so we can get people logging again."

No issue has shaken Clinton s environmental credentials more than salvage logging. The effort to free logging on vast tracts of previously untouchable forest from all environmental constraints first surfaced last year as a tagged-on "rider" to the Republican-sponsored budget-cutting "rescissions" bill. When Clinton vetoed the bill on June 7, 1995 (the first veto of his presidency), he explicitly stated that part of the reason was the disastrous salvage rider (see "Logging Without Looking," July/August). "Nobody has worked any harder than I have to start logging again in our country s forests in an appropriate way," he said at the time. "Suspending all the environmental laws of the country for three years is not the appropriate way." The Sierra Club applauded the action in full-page newspaper ads.

A month later, however, the rescissions bill was back, without the cuts to some of Clinton's favored education and jobs programs, but with the same old salvage rider. This time Clinton signed it. His turnabout, said The Washington Post, "seems to show the White House will go only so far in protecting environmental legislation the GOP wants to change." The Oregonian said the decision "reflects more the cold calculus of presidential politics than a shift in policy." Clinton, it said, "hopes to appear more moderate to the natural-resource industry, which has vilified his 'War on the West,' and to curry favor with pro-timber legislators, especially [Senator Mark] Hatfield [R-Ore.], who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee."

Stung by criticism from environmentalists, the White House initially insisted that it had been misled about how damaging the salvage rider was, and claimed that its worst aspects could be finessed, either administratively or in the courts. The former claim was debunked in The Oregonian: "We discussed it all thoroughly," Hatfield, the bill s main proponent, told the paper. "They understood every detail in that bill." In July, the White House did tighten restrictions on some salvage sales, although still vowing to meet its target of 4.5 billion board feet in salvage timber sales by the end of the year.

Due in large part to the efforts of the Sierra Club and other groups to publicize the environmental outrages emanating from Congress, there has been a remarkable political turnaround in the last year. Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton alike suddenly discovered that voters really do consider environmental protection enormously important. Gingrich took to visiting petting zoos, while Clinton fought--and won-- a series of bruising battles with the Gingrich/Dole-controlled Congress over the 1996 federal budget. At one point, Clinton refused to sign the entire federal budget solely because it included a provision opening up the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling, saying he was "not prepared to discuss the ravaging of our environment." The public backed him up, and Congress backed down.

Bill Clinton is a skillful, pragmatic politician who has watched the Gingrich/Dole revolution founder on its anti-environmentalism, has felt the pain of his own errors, and has learned how effective environmental issues are in distinguishing him from his rival. Is he, at heart, an environmentalist? The lesson of the past four years is that it is safer to assume that he is not. We can assume, however, that he will resolve conflicts in favor of the environment when it is politically expedient. It is our task to make it so.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.


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