The political environment

The president and the governor, neither a favorite of conservation activists, have surprised some critics.

Bush: Terrorism and war put the environment in the back seat.

December 14, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

THE ENVIRONMENT has been a major issue in national political campaigns for a whole generation now.

The 2000 presidential race cleaved along what are now the traditional political fault lines - George W. Bush portraying Al Gore as a ecological wacko who would force everyone to start riding tricycles to work, while Gore painted Bush as a toady of big business who would happily open the floodgates of pollution.

But as another presidential campaign approaches, the environment is making only token appearances, taking an unaccustomed seat in the back of political disagreements dominated by war and the economy.

In part, this is because one of the main motivators of environmental concerns - the possibility of unmitigated disaster - has been overshadowed by the very real disaster of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Terrorism has kind of overwhelmed environmental fears," says Robert H. Nelson, a land use specialist in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park. " The environmental groups have lost some of the oomph. It is hard to get the public aroused when the public is more focused on terrorism."

In the pre-9/11 days - when people were still paying attention - Bush drew criticism for his unilateral rejection of the Kyoto accords designed to stem global warming by limiting emissions from developed countries.

"I think that with the Kyoto protocol, it was important that we put some pressure on negotiators to get changes in the current agreement," says Matthias Ruth, director of the Environmental Policy Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. "But the way the adminstration approached it was not the best way to go about that."

Ruth says Bush was wrong to say that scientists were still undecided about the link between greenhouse gases and global warming. "In the scientific community, that is really not an issue anymore," he says. "Some people might debate the nuances, but there is widespread agreement that this is happening. Pointing to the remaining uncertainties was not really a smart move."

Bush also said it without bringing along any allies, arousing the charge of unilateralism that persists in his war on terrorism.

Post-Sept. 11, Bush has managed to make most of his environmental moves - even those that draw criticism from the conservation community, such as relaxing the restrictions on arsenic in drinking water or not raising fuel efficiency standards for U.S. automakers - without that much controversy.

Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, notes that many decisions that affect the environment are no longer made by elected bodies, but by bureaucrats.

"It used to be Congress was the arena where these things were worked out," says Crenson.

That led to lengthy debates and continuing coverage.

"Now the arena is more likely to be administrative and bureacratic. It is much less visible," he says. "There are far fewer participants. In order to find out what's going on, you have to be a regular reader to The Federal Register. If it makes the news, it's a one-day story."

Sandy Parker of the Department of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says he sees the Bush administration using tactics that he saw in the Reagan administration. "They don't attack a law head-on but they basically emasculate it by doing things like weakening the review process," he says.

Ruth agrees. "They went about it more or less strategically picking on individual issues, gnawing away, a little here and a little there," he says. "And by and large, other than maybe drilling in ANWAR, not getting a lot of attention."

ANWAR refers to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the Bush administration and many of its allies wanted to open up for drilling to search for oil. That ignited fierce opposition and the proposal was withdrawn. The publicity went away.

Another potential hot-button topic - changing the regulation of national forests - made it through Congress with little fuss because of the huge fires that destroyed hundreds of houses in Southern California.

Given a friendly name like most Bush measures, the Healthy Forest Initiative was sold as allowing the thinning of the forests to reduce their fire potential. But again many who look at its details see problems.

"Because of the fires in California, everybody wanted an anti-fire bill," says John Horowitz of the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. "But this opens up particular areas to logging and then allows the logging companies that win the concessions to decide what to log out of those areas. That is quite a change from the amount of control the Forest Service has exercised before."

Parker also has problems with the new law. "It restrains the public's ability to challenge the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service regarding their decisions on logging. And there is more opportunity to log old-growth forests."

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