Fiery talk on ecology continues to dog Gore

Environmental policies too weak, say activists

September 17, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance," Al Gore pledged to "make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization," raising hopes among even the fiercest environmentalists that, once elected vice president, he would radically reshape U.S. ecological policy.

Instead, the Clinton administration, with Gore cast as environmentalist in chief, has built a record in land, air and water protection that is long on accomplishments and expansive in scope, but riddled with compromises that have left many environmentalists disappointed and some enraged.

"Environmentalists who have worked hard to influence this administration over the last eight years have been very frustrated," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, which endorsed Gore for president this month after flirting with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

The vice president's fingerprints are all over the administration's environmental initiatives. The results of Gore's influence have been impressive, but they have also been the object of dispute:

The administration brokered what George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, called "probably the most sophisticated ecosystem management plan ever developed," to preserve 25 million acres of ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, halt the decline of the endangered spotted owl and allow some old-growth logging to continue. But tens of thousands of logging jobs have been lost, some ardent environmentalists still complain that too much timber harvesting continues, and the spotted owl population continues to slide.

The Environmental Protection Agency has drafted regulations to improve air quality and reduce emissions from cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles. But none of those regulations has gone into effect.

The White House helped broker sweeping agreements to restore the Florida Everglades, rescue the Sacramento Delta in California, preserve ancient redwoods in the Headwaters Forest of Northern California and buy wilderness in Alaska's Prince William Sound. But environmentalists say all of those plans were too generous to corporate interests.

Through executive order, Clinton has set aside more public lands than any president since Theodore Roosevelt. But some environmentalists argue that loopholes will allow some development in many of these areas and that much of the land was too remote to be threatened.

"We're being gloriously fooled," said David Brower, the 88-year-old gray eminence of the environmental movement who was president of the Sierra Club for 17 years.

Leading environmentalists who support Gore chalk up such concerns to unrealistic expectations. And, they say, it is not fair to hold the vice president accountable for the decisions of a president who has never made the environment a top priority.

But even Gore's environmental allies concede that Gore helped fuel those expectations with his own words in "Earth in the Balance."

"There are folks in the environmental community who believe we need a revolution," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which backs Gore. "And they hate Al Gore because Al Gore is not a revolutionary."

Though he was second fiddle, the vice president had a direct hand in the administration's environmental agenda. He helped stock the executive branch with trusted aides and leading environmentalists, fought for bigger environmental budgets, clashed with Clinton's economists and occasionally led public, high-stakes campaigns, such as the administration's embrace of the Kyoto protocol to combat global warming.

But more than anything, aides say, he made environmental issues a priority.

"Because we knew he would fight for stronger environmental protections, it enabled people throughout the administration to move forward," said Frampton, a former president of the Wilderness Society.

For some environmentalists, it was not enough. The circle of the disenchanted may be small, but it is vocal.

"Almost anything this administration has done, even more so than [former Presidents] Reagan and Bush, has been smoke and mirrors," said Tim Hermach, executive director of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore. "The word `save' no longer means save; the word `protect' no longer means protect."

To administration aides, not to mention foes of the White House in the business community, such language is almost mystifying.

"Environmentalists know that they have had more access to the highest level of decision-making than they had in the entire history of the environmental movement," said Kathleen McGinty, a Gore ally who preceded Frampton at the helm of the Council on Environmental Quality.

But the discontent can easily be traced back to the vice president's words. In "Earth in the Balance," Gore wrote that he had "become very impatient with [his] own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously." Even so, as vice president, he has proved himself a pragmatist.

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