Private rights, public resources Politics: How would a Sauerbrey administration protect the Chesapeake? The candidate has a lot of explaining to do.

On the Bay

August 28, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what Ellen Sauerbrey really thinks about environmental protection, do as I did this week and check out the Web site of Frontiers of Freedom (http: //www.ff.org).

The front-runner for Maryland's Republican gubernatorial nomination is on the board of FOF, an ultraconservative think tank and political advocacy group in Arlington, Va.

She says she has been inactive and may resign, but as she also told The Sun's Michael Dresser this week, she joined the anti-regulatory organization because:

"As I remember, what their goals were, was something I very much believe in."

FOF's goals and views are well articulated at its Internet site in writings by its chairman, Malcolm Wallop, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming.

I clicked first on "Privatizing the Planet: An Alternative Vision of Environmental Protection." It begins:

"Much of what passes for environmentalism today has nothing to do with clean air and water. It has everything to do with dirty politics and the acquisition of power invoking supposedly scientific knowledge of the public good to legitimize transferring money and power to one's own friends and ideological compatriots."

Wallop is just warming up: "People who a few years ago described themselves as scientific socialists now describe themselves as environmental experts.

"In the name of the environment they can do what they could not do in the name of Marx, or Keynes. Every landowner, everyone who eats, showers, works, will have to pay and bow to the new masters."

Less government and less regulation, Wallop says, is always good. "The extension of private property rights to the broadest possible array of natural resources is the proper agenda for real environmentalism."

He gives this example:

"When Columbus discovered America, there were billions of passenger pigeons, no chickens -- now there are billions of chickens, no passenger pigeons."

The reason, Wallop says, is straightforward. "People concerned themselves with the welfare [of chickens]. Farmers would stay up at night to protect them. Researchers studied them. Private property linked chickens and mankind symbiotically.

"By contrast, passenger pigeons became extinct because they were the common heritage of all Americans. Private ownership of a pigeon was possible only if one first killed the bird.

"Not surprisingly, pigeons were destroyed in huge numbers and the habitat for the bird shrank rapidly as America converted forests into lands suitable for chickens."

His point, elaborated more than I can do justice to here, is that whether it is pigeons or air quality, rivers or ground water or ancient forests, private ownership and free markets always preserve and enhance, while public ownership and regulatory protection invariably screw it up.

The truth, of course, is that protecting the environment requires a mix of regulation and market incentives, of private and public actions and entities.

But groups like FOF, and by implication Sauerbrey, are not primarily motivated by protecting the environment, though I expect they, too, sincerely hope to do so.

But they come to the task from such an ideological allegiance to unfettered capitalism and individual freedoms, they can propound only theories of environmental protection that comfortably fit that mold.

And they reject out of hand most forms of protection, such as regulatory measures, that don't fit the mold. The Endangered Species Act, for example, in FOF's view, "has little to do with the protection of [species]. It is the debate between collectivization of land and the right to own property."

(Sport fishermen and bay watermen, incidentally, should read closely what FOF has to say in favor of privatizing the water.)

FOF seems additionally handicapped by a paranoia that modern environmentalism is diabolical cover for renewed Marxism or -- as Wallop wrote last year in the Washington Times -- "a New Age form of Christianity."

FOF does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a loose network of hundreds of anti-regulatory and property rights groups, sometimes known as the "Wise Use Movement," that has fostered a significant backlash to environmental protection in recent years.

This backlash has in some cases pointed out real regulatory abuses, has put forth some provocative new ideas and jarred the mainstream environmental community when it was getting perhaps a bit settled in its ways.

But the movement's overall vision of what constitutes "wise use" natural resources is profoundly and fundamentally opposed to most of the ways we are currently trying to protect Chesapeake Bay.

It is a vision that is an exploiter's dream, whether Wise Use groups intend it that way or not.

For example, from the Web site of an FOF ally, the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, comes this set of guiding principles that, it says, most affiliated groups could subscribe to:

"The earth and its life are tough and resilient; we only learn about the world through trial and error; our limitless imaginations can break through natural limits to make earthly goods virtually infinite."

If this is the kind of stuff Sauerbrey subscribes to -- and her joining FOF indicates it is -- she has a lot of explaining to do about how her administration would treat Chesapeake Bay.

Republicans may tire of this column's harping on their party leadership's disaffection from environmental responsibility in recent years.

No doubt most Republicans care about the environment, and no doubt many have compelling other reasons to vote for Sauerbrey.

But none of them should think such a vote will be anything but bad for the Chesapeake Bay.

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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