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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Spring Thaw

A critical edge for environmental protection.

In the Arctic they call this time of year "breakup." The giant ice floes crack and shatter and drift out with the currents, clearing the way for an explosion of life in the Arctic Ocean. You wouldn't know it from the deadlock and cowardice of Congress, but beyond the blinkered precincts of Capitol Hill a new energy is building, shaking our nation's environmental-policy stasis. The first cracks appeared in the statehouses.

In their State of the State messages, governors as disparate as New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, Maryland's Parris Glendening, and Virginia's James Gilmore laid out ambitious environmental agendas. While we are right to remain skeptical (Gilmore, for instance, spent the past four years as consigliere to former Governor George Allen's anti-environmental vendetta), the remarkable thing is that these plans were proposed at all. Whitman's anti-sprawl campaign, for example, is the most comprehensive government program in the country.

Talk is still only talk, but at least the subject has changed from "regulatory reform" and "property rights" to serious environmental issues. And some states, like North Carolina, are moving from talk to action. When Governor Jim Hunt appointed former Sierra Club lobbyist Bill Holman as the state's chief environmental enforcer, chills ran down the spines of Tarheel State polluters.

Even President Clinton is coming out of hibernation, suddenly exercising in his budget and State of the Union messages the political muscle he flexes only in even-numbered years. He declared, for example, a moratorium on roadbuilding (and thus, for practical purposes, logging) in 33 million acres of national forest. While temporary and incomplete, the ban supports the gradual liberation of the U.S. Forest Service from its servitude to Big Timber.

The president also proposed a new clean-water initiative, committing for the first time to restore wetlands faster than we lose them. His acquisition list for the once-neglected Land and Water Conservation Fund would complete the Appalachian Trail, establish a migration zone for Yellowstone bison, and buy out the New World Mine, which threatens the national park's water. And his budget puts $6 billion into energy conservation and renewable resources, a down payment on the promises made in Kyoto to reduce U.S. greenhouse pollution. (Oil-state Republicans denounced these proposals as socialism. Careful—there's a solar cell under every bed.)

The spring thaw is even causing fissures in Detroit. Last October's Tokyo Motor Show created a buzz for electric and hybrid cars, profoundly embarrassing the U.S. auto companies with their massive gas hogs. First, Ford admitted that it could produce lower-polluting sport utility vehicles after all-for only $100 more per vehicle. Chrysler President Thomas Stallkamp initially doubted that Americans really wanted clean cars, but changed his mind seven hours after Ford's announcement. General Motors brought up the rear.

The Big Three also conceded that they could make cars that meet the most stringent California clean-air standards as well as cars that are 70 percent cleaner than current federal regulations require. Evidence of a hitherto undetected environmental conscience in Detroit? Perhaps—although the admission did come only days after the Sierra Club threatened to sue to force tougher auto-emission standards. It also followed the failure of two costly polluter gambles: the unsuccessful $15 million ad assault on the EPA's new clean-air standards, and the $20 million campaign to shake public support for action to reduce global warming.

Whatever the motivation, the momentum has changed. Wetlands protection, forest policy, the auto industry all are on courses that were unthinkable only a few years ago. In 1995 critics howled when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park. But when he reintroduced the Mexican wolf to the Southwest in January, there was barely a yelp. Happily, we ride that momentum into the current election year. With unemployment and crime rates down and the economy booming, environmentalists have the best political opening in decades. Now is the time to build on our gains and lay out a strong agenda.

The president's forest-road moratorium is just a start. We need to follow it with permanent wilderness protection for those 33 million acres and an end to commercial logging on all national forests. Tourists in Maine are already asking why they can't find the Sierra Club's proposed Maine Woods National Park on their road maps; now they need to ask candidates to put the park on the political map. In New Hampshire, where the millennial presidential campaign will begin shortly, it's time to lobby for a White Mountain National Park. Shielding St. Louis from flooding is going to take far more than the 100,000 acres of new wetlands that the administration is promising to create annually. (A good start would be to halt the destruction of wetlands, now at 117,000 acres every year.) From the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana to the Headwaters Forest in California, we need to think bigger than ever. Wildlife needs wild places—and an Endangered Species Act that starts from that assumption.

It's also time to think about broad new coalitions to sustain our momentum against the inevitable backlash from the exploiters and polluters this fall. Rural Americans jeopardized by industrial hog facilities need to join with their downstream urban neighbors threatened by chemical plants; vegetarian activists need to find common cause with hunters and fishers. Together, we need to break through the ice jam in Congress and welcome the new spring.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org


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