Creating a 'Civic Environmentalism'

January 10, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Washington -- For years as the town's mayor, John Bullard struggled for the interests of New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of America's legendary fishing ports.

Now Mr. Bullard is working for the Clinton administration, as chief of sustainable development in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And it turns out that New Bedford -- indeed all the fishing towns up and down the Northeast coast -- are on his agenda again.

Severe overfishing has raised the specter of economic ruin for fish-dependent towns from Maine to New Jersey. The catch dropped 30 percent in 1993. The stock of haddock, once America's fish staple, is commercially extinct. Yellow-tailed flounder and other species are at historic lows. Thousands of fishermen could soon be thrown onto welfare.

Here's a problem far beyond the capacity of traditional Washington-based ''command and control'' environmental regulation. It's far more complex than controlling the belching smokestack or the untreated sewage flowing into a river. Here is a threat to an entire ecosystem, with huge economic stakes for people who make their living off a natural resource.

The federal government cannot -- and probably should not -- try to produce custom-made answers for each region, each resource crisis. The approaches for the 1990s dictate that protection of the environment and development of job opportunities must go hand in hand. And that the people most affected, at the state, regional and local level, need to be chief architects of the solutions.

There's now, in fact, a Presidential Council on Sustainable Development. A third of its 25 members come from industry, a third from environmental groups, a third are Cabinet or &r sub-Cabinet members.

John Bullard is trying to make the federal government an honest broker in generating a ''bottoms up'' answer to the fisheries crisis. Instead of the feds' normal approach -- putting its bureaucrats to work analyzing a problem, then announcing mandates and regulations -- he's going the messy, democratic route of convening local meetings.

Starting this month in Gloucester and continuing in eight most affected fishing communities up and down the Eastern seaboard, the meetings are designed to encourage fishermen, environmentalists and local town leaders to suggest solutions.

The spur is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will issue draconian ''stop fish'' orders, cutting fishing to a fraction of the days now allowed, unless other solutions are identified.

Different places may have different strategies for fishing limits 00 and alternative approaches for economic development. Mr. Bullard hopes his meetings will induce leaders from the fishing communities to join in creating a comprehensive Northeast fisheries plan. If it's sound enough, he sees hope that Congress might embrace it.

DeWitt John, head of the Center for Competitive Sustainable Economies at the National Academy of Public Administration, has a new phrase for the consultative, bottoms-up planning process to address these issues. He calls it ''civic environmentalism'' -- also the name of his new book (CQ Press, Washington, D.C.).

Civic environmentalism doesn't, he says, deny the need for tough federal regulatory standards where appropriate. But it does say forums are needed to bring together the fragmented array of federal, state and local agencies with business and community leaders, to find better environmental solutions and companion economic strategies, including ''greener'' manufacturing processes.

These approaches are ideal, he believes, for industries clearly dependent on natural resources, such as timber, farming, fishing and even tourism. The viability of each depends on not exhausting natural resources -- timber, soil, stocks of fish or scenic views.

Mr. Bullard suggests that when the interested parties are part of the solution, rather than having it imposed on them from afar, they ''buy into it.'' And the solution has more chance of success.

The feds' part in this new approach is to put their regulatory gun behind the door and keep it there as long as there's hope for reaching environmental goals through community-devised plans.

They can help by convening groups across state lines, possibly providing matching grants to get the local talks rolling. They can provide technical information and back-up. Then they can readjust their resources to help make the locally devised solutions work.

The states or regions can become responsible for working out environmental solutions that include strong economic development, a big concern to them.

Most important, the local communities get to do it for themselves. They become more competent and strategically oriented.

No one says it's easy: Witness the agony of Northwestern leaders in trying to create a consensus plan for the spotted owl, even with President Clinton's direct involvement.

Civic environmentalism may work more easily in the ''greener'' states -- a Minnesota or Vermont, for example -- than in historically industry-dominated states such as Louisiana or Texas.

But where and when civic environmentalism works, it may be a promising ticket to a vigorous federalism for the '90s.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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