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Sierra Magazine
Earth to Congress

The American people were sending you a message--don't mess with the environment.

by Carl Pope

On a bleak afternoon in early 1995, New York Times reporter Jack Cushman called me on the telephone. "Well," he sallied, "what are environmentalists going to do about the blitzkrieg that the new Congress is going to launch at you?"

"It's not a blitzkrieg," I responded. "It's the invasion of Russia. Wait until next winter."

A year later the 104th Congress' War on the Environment was in full rout, with Newt Gingrich's troops fleeing from their positions like the German army after its march on Moscow. After the 1996 election, Gingrich's majority in the House was drastically reduced.

How did it happen? The Sierra Club and the environmental movement played a central role in the unmaking of this Congress. But the real credit goes to the American people, who amid the clamor of 1990s politics sent some brilliantly clear messages. It's worth reiterating them here. If politicians remember why issues won and lost in the 104th Congress--and if the public continues to remind them--we won't have to repeat history in the 105th.

Environmental protection is common sense and common ground.

Within days of casting their first votes for the Contract With America (which came to be known as the Contract on America's Environment), members of the 104th Congress realized their leadership and their campaign contributors had seriously misled them. Industry lobbyists loved the War on the Environment (disguised as "cost-benefit analysis," "risk assessment," and "unfunded mandates"), but from Long Island to Puget Sound, constituents did not. Freshman members of Congress who blithely followed Gingrich's lead were stunned by the public's anger.

Yet the congressional leadership soldiered on. Convinced that small towns and rural areas would support other items on its agenda, such as closing down national parks and weakening clean-water regulations, the 104th Congress went on the road. Alerted by the Sierra Club to the chance to speak up, Main Street turned out in places like Salisbury, Maryland, Casper, Wyoming, and Salt Lake City, Utah, and told the 104th Congress that Americans--urban and rural alike--wanted to protect the environment.

Over the next year, at public gatherings and through letters, phone calls, and e-mail, the public spoke out loudly enough to change the basic chemistry of the debate. Proof came during the battle over FIFRA, the federal pesticides law. Environmentalists like Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) were amazed: the pesticide industry, the agribusiness lobby, and key Republican committee leaders suddenly wanted a bill, almost any bill, that Waxman and Leahy would support. The 104th Congress ended up strengthening most of FIFRA's provisions and enacting legislation that chemical and agribusiness interests would have had killed in any previous Congress. Public demand for strong environmental protection was too powerful to ignore.

Americans have a right to clean air and clean water.

One of the dimmer ideas of the new Congress was banning "unfunded mandates" such as federal legislation requiring states and cities to meet environmental standards. The effect would have been disastrous; federal taxpayers couldn't and shouldn't have to pay for polluters' messes. The media in communities like Columbus, Georgia, pointed out that "what looks like an unfunded mandate upstream looks like raw sewage downstream." But the House ignored this danger, and passed legislation gutting the Safe Drinking Water Act. The legislation included a "don't ask-don't tell" policy: water departments would no longer be required to inform their customers when water was contaminated. In response, the Sierra Club crafted radio and television ads, organized community clean-water events, and prepared and distributed a half-million voter guides that revealed how congressional representatives had voted on this and other environmental issues. As the public woke up to the danger, the House proposal was derailed in the Senate. Retreating completely, Congress reauthorized a strengthened Safe Drinking Water Act in the summer of 1996.

Money can't buy politicians love.

Midway through the 104th Congress it was clear that a major political disaster loomed for the leadership. Some chemical-industry lobbyists even warned that draconian proposals to cripple regulations, undermine Environmental Protection Agency enforcement, and shut down parks were actually hurting effortsto loosen environmental regulation. Moderate Republicans tried to get the leadership to back off. But hundreds of millions of dollars in industry campaign contributions had flowed to elect this Congress, and front groups for polluters' coalitions with misleading names like the Alliance for Reasonable Regulation and the National Wetlands Coalition still had almost nothing to show for it. "We didn't get our money's worth," was how one California donor put it.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole repeatedly tried to persuade the Senate to pass his bill to force taxpayers to pay landowners for the costs of complying with federal environmental standards, and threatened to bring to the Senate floor his bill to hamstring federal health, safety, and environmental regulation. As long as he kept pushing, dollars from the beneficiaries of these bills kept flowing into his presidential-campaign coffers.

On election day, though, Dole's dollars were of no use. Gingrich kept his House majority--but just barely. An exit poll commissioned by the Republican Party showed that the environmental issue had cost the Republicans twice as many votes as any other, even Social Security and Medicare. Asked on election night about the lessons learned, Republican Senator John McCain (Ariz.) said, "We're going to have to change our approach to the environment."

Americans cherish wildlands.

In Minnesota, Republicans figured they could pick up a U.S. Senate seat by going after Voyageurs National Park and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Senator Rod Grams (R-Minn.) tried to help Republican candidate Rudy Boschwitz defeat Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone by pushing for more motorized use than currently allowed in parks and wilderness areas. The Republicans saturated rural northern Minnesota radio and television stations with $500,000 worth of negative and misleading advertising. Sierra Club activists responded by distributing more than 80,000 pieces of voter-education information, dramatizing the attack against the park with media events, and volunteering by the hundreds for the Wellstone campaign. Grams back-paddled, but held on to his goal of allowing motorized vehicles on some of the portages in Boundary Waters. Even at the end of the Congress he kept pressing the issue, only to find Wellstone re-elected by a far larger margin than expected. Weakening safeguards for parks and wildernesses turned out to be bad politics as well as bad policy.

Representative James Hansen (R-Utah) and Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) wore the black hats in the debate over the omnibus parks bill, a mélange of national-park-protection measures. Hansen repeatedly stymied such popular proposals as purchase of Sterling Forest in New York and New Jersey and protection of the Presidio in San Francisco in an effort to add his anti-wilderness Utah bill to the mix. Likewise Murkowski tried to tack on a wrongheaded measure authorizing the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize clearcutting in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. He doggedly held on until the last hours of Congress, refusing to allow a vote on the measure unless he got his way. After the public protested the maneuverings, Dole's successor as Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott (Miss.), finally told Murkowski enough was enough, that the Senate was going to vote and go home having protected Sterling Forest and the Presidio and having ended the outrageous Tongass boondoggle.

The Sierra Club's work letting Amer- icans know what was happening in Congress also helped convince President Clinton to take a strong pro-environment stand. By the end of 1995 he was vetoing every bill that contained anti-environmental riders. In November he acted to protect our children's lungs by vetoing Senator Dole's regulatory "reform" bill, which would have hamstrung the EPA. In December he shut down the federal government to protect the Arctic Wildlife Refuge from the oil industry. Every time he wielded his eco-veto, the public cheered. (No one has ever accused Bill Clinton of turning a deaf ear to a public cheer.)

Using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, Clinton created the 1.7-million­acre Grand Staircase­Escalante National Monument a year later, setting aside with a single stroke of the pen the most threatened landscape in Utah's redrock wilderness, and doing what no president had ever done before--asserting the president's constitutionally undeniable, but at times politically tenuous, authority over the public lands during an election campaign.

Just before Clinton stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and set aside Grosvenor Arch, the Kaiparowits Plateau, the Paria/Hackberry Wilderness, and the canyons of the Escalante, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) blustered that there would be "hell to pay" if the President proceeded. Clinton acted, and there was no hell to pay.

The lesson was clear for future politicians: the American landscape belongs to the American people, not to those who want to pollute it for profit. A political leader who stands with the people, and the land, will prevail.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director and writes "Ways & Means."


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