Chicken about the Environment

DERRICK Z. JACKSON

April 09, 1993|By DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Boston. -- It was almost yuk, yuk and a playful roll in the mud for environmentalists in the early days of Bill Clinton's presidency. ''I've spent more time visiting the president and vice president in the last two weeks than in the last 12 years,'' said Jay D. Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation. ''I know these guys so well. I feel comfortable calling them, and they feel comfortable calling me.''

This comfort was due in part to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's plan for new fees for commercial exploitation of public lands. Mining companies would pay royalties for gold and silver. Timber companies would pay enough to cover the government's costs on timber sales. Farmers could no longer get away with paying one-fifth the market rate to graze cows on federal land.

NTC The fees would have raised $1 billion over five years. The money would help to restore habitats ravaged by these industries. Secretary Babbitt said: ''I see us as the Department of the Environment. We are about the perpetual American love affair with the land and the parks.''

Jim Walters of the National Park Service said: ''Most of us are ecstatic. We all look forward to a new day. It's like a dark period is over.''

The ecstasy is on hold. Western senators addicted to a century )) of industrial welfare threw a rock in front of the president's plow. They threatened to sabotage his budget. Rather than call them selfish gridlockers, Mr. Clinton abandoned his plow. He dropped the fees -- just as he used to chicken out to chicken farmers.

When he was governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton was very friendly with Fortune-500 chicken baron Don Tyson. Tyson Foods has 25 percent of the nation's chicken business, killing 25 million chickens a week. Tyson's annual revenue of $4 billion nearly equals that of the entire state of Arkansas.

In a state of 2.3 million people, the chicken industry produces waste in its northwest corner equal to that of 4 million people. About 300 miles of rivers are so fowled (pun intended) from chicken waste that no swimming is allowed. In one town examined by the Washington Post, Tyson's waste led to groundwater contamination and dysentery. It took Governor Clinton a year and a half to declare an emergency.

From 1988 to 1990, Mr. Clinton gave Tyson $7.8 million in tax breaks. Environmentalists rarely won a clean break from pollution. When the governor appointed a 28-member animal-waste task force in 1990, only three members were environmentalists. Chicken waste was not a priority.

Brownie Ledbetter, director of the Arkansas Public Policy Project, said of Mr. Clinton, ''He's just following the great Southern economic development plan -- come to us, we have cheap wages, few unions, all the tax breaks you could want and lousy environmental regulations.''

The Tyson-Clinton bond has already been felt in Washington. Mr. Tyson helped fund inaugural parties. Sources told the Los Angeles Times that he killed the appointment of consumer activist Ellen Haas to run meat and poultry inspections in the Department of Agriculture. Mr. Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy had promised tougher inspection policies after tainted hamburger meat killed several people in Washington state. Ms. Haas had promised tough seafood inspections. By coincidence, Tyson recently purchased a seafood company.

Unworried about super-tough inspections, Tyson is moving toward $8 billion of revenues by 1995. It dreams of leapfrogging from the Forbes 200s into the low 100s. The public is left without parallel assurance that the cost of Tyson's growth will not involve unswimmable and unfishable rivers and a trip to the hospital.

When President Clinton dropped the timber, mining and grazing fees, outraged environmentalists should not have been surprised. Instead of yuk, yuk, thank-God-I-have-a-foot-in-the-door-of-the White House, they should have kept their ear to the ground. The sound on Mr. Clinton's farm is cluck, cluck.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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