Big Green

October 08, 1990|By Neal R. Peirce

TWO ''BIG GREENS'' -- one in California, the other in Washington state -- go before voters November 6. The outcomes of the two votes may say a lot about America's environment in the '90s.

The Golden State version encompasses dream standards of environmentalists on every topic from pesticides to oil drilling to sewage treatment and preserving noble redwood forests. Everyone agrees it's the most elaborate (39-page, 16,000-word) piece of environmental legislation ever placed on a popular ballot. Agriculture and industry, nearly apoplectic, have attacked it so bitterly that the initiative, once proclaimed a ''done deal,'' now enjoys no better than a 50-50 chance of passage.

Up the coast, Washington voters must decide on a very different ''Big Green'' -- an initiative to create a strong growth-management process to control and guide the waves of new population and suburban growth that have washed over western Washington in recent years.

The Washington Legislature made a stab at a growth-management bill in its 1990 session. But developers and their allies succeeded in emasculating it so completely that angry environmentalists wrote a tough substitute measure and gathered 229,489 signatures to get it on the ballot.

The Washington measure is in fact no more ''radical'' than Oregon's regional system of urban-growth boundaries (in effect since the '70s) and Florida's 1985 ''concurrency'' requirements (no development without pre-approved and -financed roads). In fact, it's modeled on those state statutes.

California's ''Big Green,'' by contrast, plows some very fresh ground in American law. It would ban 19 pesticides known to cause cancer or birth defects -- a number of them widely used. Except in a national emergency, new offshore oil and gas leasing would be off-limits.

Developers would have to plant a tree for every 500 square feet they build -- about one million trees a year. ''Clear-cutting'' more than 70 percent of the trees on an acre of land would be outlawed. Other provisions would restrict polluting activity. And there'd be an elected ''environmental advocate'' -- a first under American law -- to make sure state agencies enforced the initiative.

Opponents argue Big Green will undermine California's multibillion agricultural economy, damage the economy nationally, raise consumer prices and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs while doing little to safeguard health or the environment. But they predicted a future almost as dire when a stiff anti-toxics initiative went on the California ballot in 1986. Five years and mountains of litigation later, it's quietly begun to have an impact.

Opponents are trying to muddy the waters with two competing, industry-sponsored ballot initiatives. Each has a grandiose, somewhat deceptive name. ''The Global Warming and Clear-Cutting Reduction, Wildlife and Reforestation Act of 1990'' is actually the timber industry's way to avoid tough lumbering restrictions in Big Green. Environmentalists nicknamed it ''Big Stump.'' And they call a California Farm Bureau-backed initiative on pesticides, designed to undo Big Green's impact if it gets passed, ''Big Brown.''

One can argue that Big Green's biggest flaw is its massive scope. Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who helped think up the measure, hoped to ride it to the governorship -- only to be unhorsed in the primary. California may now be so ''smart'' about initiatives as political ploys that it has lost sight of their original purpose: a safety valve when legislatures fail to act.

Indeed, one initiative on this fall's California ballot would specifically bar the legislature making a single change in initiative procedures without statewide voter approval. Not surprisingly, sponsors are the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Paul Gann's Citizens Committee. Having discovered a gravy train in biennial initiative campaigns, they're anxious to keep it comfortably on track.

By contrast, Washington's ''Big Green'' growth-management plan is a direct reaction to the legislature's failure to find ways to contain a crescendo of development. It's almost justifiable as emergency legislation to stop more vast stretches of the Pacific Northwest from falling victim to ticky-tacky, energy-wasteful suburban development.

It has a couple of inherent contradictions: Neighborhoods are protected from unwanted development while expanded affordable housing is promised. But the bill obliges cities and counties to consider the environment as they draw up comprehensive development plans, which must be approved by the state.

Indeed, the straightforwardness of the Washington measure may be one reason -- at least now -- that it seems comfortably ahead, while California's ''Big Green'' proponents are scrambling to regain lost momentum.

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