A good fit indeed

October 09, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

SALT LAKE CITY - At first glance, the wetlands stretching out before us don't seem like a prime piece of the Earth's real estate. The narrow corridor between the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake is dotted with electric towers and shows the wounds of a five-year drought.

But when you look closely, through binoculars, you can see a vast number of shorebirds - a sample of the 200 to 300 species from pintail ducks to phalaropes that find this oasis in the Western desert every year.

As we walk along the edge on a warm fall morning, Marc Heileson of Utah's Sierra Club tells me how he explains the importance of these wetlands to his mother's fourth-grade students. "Imagine if you had to drive to California and there was only one gas station in Nevada," he tells them. "That would guarantee that everyone would stop there."

This is indeed the one giant refueling stop on the Central and Pacific flyways. Millions of birds come here to rest, feed and nest on journeys as long as 20,000 miles.

But gas station is probably not the best analogy in this case. You see, this is also where Michael O. Leavitt, the governor of Utah who has been nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has long tried to build a highway - one football field wide and 125 miles long.

The story of wetland and highway is a Utah tale that does more than raise questions about Mr. Leavitt's reputation as a "moderate." It challenges the redefinition of moderate. And it worries environmentalists here that their governor would meld too easily with the Bush administration's environmental policies.

The idea for the highway was born in the 1990s when a census projected that 5 million more people would be living along the Wasatch front by 2050. In 1996, with little notice and less consultation, Mr. Leavitt announced the "Legacy Highway." His idea of a legacy was to pave wetlands into highways for a future of sprawl, cul-de-sac housing and "big box" stores.

In the late 1990s, the governor who would head the Bush EPA struggled with the Clinton EPA. But in 2000, just days after the Florida recount, the Corps of Engineers issued permits for the highway to begin. Then after weeks of nonstop bulldozing, the conservative 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a blistering opinion for a temporary halt. Now the highway is on hold, but Mr. Heileson says the governor "has pursued it like a white whale."

Mr. Leavitt is a personable and popular governor who has held office for 11 years. In the recent Senate hearings, he described himself as a collaborator who turns his back on the extremes and seeks "the productive middle." He gets credit for a multistate agreement among industry, environmentalists and politicians to clean the air over the national parks.

But not everyone finds merit in the word "collaborator." On his watch, an agreement with the Bush administration took millions of acres of wilderness off the protected list and opened them to development. On his watch, the state's clean water enforcement was tied for dead last. On his watch, environmentalists say they were simply cut out of the discussion.

Mr. Leavitt has also, in a creative New Age moment, spinned a pseudo-Latin word, enlibra, as his environmental motto. He defines it as "to move toward balance." But this too suggests how "balance" has become unbalanced, how the very definitions of an "extremist" and a "moderate" shift in an administration that weakened the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and put political science over environmental science.

"I say he'll be a good fit with the Bush administration," says Lawson LeGate, the Sierra Club's Southwest representative. "He's used to making deals behind closed doors while saying he believes in collaboration, not polarization. He's an affable guy who uses his talent to mask a harsh agenda. To say he's a fit is not a compliment."

Last week, Democrats in the Senate, angry at administration policies in a White House that phonied the facts on the air quality near Ground Zero, blocked a committee vote that would send Mr. Leavitt's nomination to the floor. But in Utah they are already referring to the governor by his shorebird name: a lame duck. One way or another he's likely to be the new EPA head.

So the question is whether Mr. Leavitt's EPA will be an Environmental Protection Agency or, as Sen. Barbara Boxer quipped, an Environmental Pollution Agency.

In a now-famous memo, Republican strategist Frank Luntz urged the Bush folks to "greenwash" the language, to talk of "climate change" instead of "global warming" and spin the message.

Now along comes a man who talks of the "productive middle" while he wants to pave wetlands and call the highway his "legacy." No, to say that Mr. Leavitt will fit into this administration is indeed not a compliment.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe and appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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