Playing politics with the environment

September 25, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

BOSTON -- President Clinton's decision to designate almost 2 million acres of Utah a national monument shows that the White House is reading those opinion polls very closely indeed.

One of the mild surprises of this 1996 campaign has been the volatility of environmental issues. It is to some degree a predictable result of the fact that the economy is perceived as strong and less threatening by most Americans than it appeared to be four years ago. When economic problems are not a !B preoccupation of the voters, they have the luxury of worrying about other things.

In this case, the political importance of the issue has been enhanced by the view that the hard-line Republican conservatives who took over in the House of Representatives after the 1994 election were so hostile to government regulation -- over-regulation in their view -- that they would reverse years of effort to protect the environment.

Familiar lines

The controversy over the land in Utah, to be designated as the Canyons of the Escalante National Monument, has developed along familiar lines. Although environmental groups across the nation have supported some such action, Utah political leaders have been stubbornly resisting, protesting the loss of 900 jobs that would be created by taking huge deposits of coal under the land.

In this case, it is an easy call for President Clinton in terms of politics. Utah is always one of the two or three most ardently and consistently Republican states in the union, and the president has never had any chance of winning there November 5.

Who cares?

The most recent poll has Bob Dole 14 points ahead, but there are only five electoral votes at stake so who cares? On a national basis, the Democrats hold a pronounced advantage with those who are most concerned about the environment.

In the long run, however, it probably is not healthy to see this kind of hardening of ideological lines on environmental questions. The concern with clean air and clean water has always been something that crossed party lines. When they were thought of as ''conservationists'' rather than ''environmentalists'' a generation ago, there were as many prominent Republicans as Democrats in the forefront of the movement.

Moreover, there are serious questions raised by such things as the coal reserves here or the efforts to save the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. What government should be doing in a perfect world would be finding a formula that would recognize both priorities -- meaning jobs as well as the environment.

But this is one of many issues on which increasingly harsh partisan lines have been drawn in the last few years, particularly in Congress.

Conservatives have depicted the environmentalists as foolish liberals more interested in saving the snail darter than providing jobs. Liberals have accused their opponents of wanting to roll back years of government action to protect air, water and wild lands as a payoff to wicked developers.

Passion and action

The issue is not as emotional as the debate over abortion, but it arouses both passion and political action. And it seems to have meaning for many more Americans.

For Clinton, it was a sitting-duck campaign strike. With his environmentalist vice president Al Gore at his side, the president signed the legislation before a stunning backdrop of the spectacular red-rock country in camera range. It was an event worthy of Ronald Reagan and his event-arranging genius, Mike Deaver.

The administration is making all the right noises about finding other places where those mining jobs can be replaced without destroying national resources that future generations should enjoy. The test of its intentions will be what President Clinton, assuming he is re-elected, does to follow through during his second term.

Environmentalists are convinced the president's intentions will prove making policy is more than just another campaign photo op. We'll see.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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