Environmentalists undefeated by voters' rejection of 'green' proposals

November 12, 1990|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The environmental movement hit a brick wall in last Tuesday's elections.

Voters spurned most ballot proposals to protect air, water and land against pollution and commercial exploitation, including California's much-vaunted "Big Green" initiative.

But even before the last votes were counted, conservation groups were vowing to bounce back with new tactics.

"Our people are already planning to take different portions of 'Big Green' to the legislature in California," said Reid Wilson, political director of the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists consoled themselves in the knowledge that their defeat did not signify rejection of green ideals, but rather the electorate's more pressing concerns over the economy and the Persian Gulf crisis.

"We ran into a big voter tantrum," said Lawrie Mott, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which coordinated the green campaign in California. "The voters are nervous and confused," said Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "On one hand, the nation is poised to fight Oil War I. On the other hand, the nation is going into recession. And Congress can't fight the deficit."

Environmental proposals were not the only initiatives to fall victim to circumstances. Almost anything that seemed draconian or costly -- from a homeless shelter proposal in Washington to an increase in school aid in Arizona -- fell by the wayside.

Rejection of "Big Green," or Proposition 128, was most eye-catching, probably because of the multimillion-dollar campaign and countercampaign that surrounded it. A complex compendium of anti-pollution and conservation regulations unprecedented in scope, it would have imposed stringent controls on atmospheric pollution, global warming gases, pesticides, offshore oil drilling and logging.

Other casualties included an Oregon initiative for recycling packaging, a Missouri proposal to preserve scenic rivers in the Ozarks, a $1.975 billion bond to raise money for environmental projects in New York and a measure to limit mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The sheer bulk of some of the initiatives frightened many voters, Mr. Hair said.

"Big Green was like trying to solve all of history's problems in one initiative," he said. "The complexity was too much for a lot of people. I think that's taught us a valuable lesson for the future."

Other environmentalists also conceded that combining a range of environmental ideas was a mistake.

Future initiatives would concentrate on individual issues -- this time with more allies in the House, Senate and state governorships before the elections, Mr. Wilson said.

"By our calculation, the environment picked up one net seat in the Senate and 14 net seats in the House," he said. "And those people are going to be around to help us for many years.

"In that sense, the elections were really a success."

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