Holiday gifts

December 18, 2003

MAYBE IT'S something in the air, or in the eggnog; with any luck it's contagious. Common sense seems to be busting out all over during this pre-holiday week.

A series of unrelated decisions on environmental and health matters by both federal courts and regulatory agencies should combine to make the season a bit brighter - for most, though probably not all, involved.

Most surprising - and thus especially welcome - comes President Bush's decision to abandon plans to strip millions of acres of wetlands of federal protection, which would have left them prey to development. The reversal was credited to a storm of public protest, convincing the administration that Americans care deeply about these shoreline areas that play a critical role in water quality and wildlife habitat, and don't want them filled in to become housing projects.

However obvious the politics, the decision lends hope to the notion that new EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt will now enforce the administration's "no net loss" of wetlands commitment enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, another victory for the environment came from federal District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who thwarted Bush administration plans to allow up to 950 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Instead, Judge Sullivan reinstated a Clinton administration policy of phasing out and banning use of the noisy, polluting, bison-disrupting machines. He was appropriately unimpressed by claims from snowmobile makers that cleaner, quieter models would reduce damage to the park and its workers to a level that should be acceptable.

Sweet reason also seems likely to prevail at the Food and Drug Administration on the question of making morning-after contraceptive pills readily available, after an advisory panel overwhelmingly recommended sale of the drug without a prescription. Abortion opponents found reason to complain because in some cases the pill may interfere with the implanting of a fertilized embryo. But for those who care most about reducing unwanted pregnancies - and thereby the chief motivation for abortion - ready access to Plan B pills is a no-brainer.

And in another recent sign of this trend toward sanity, a federal appeals court in San Francisco said Attorney General John Ashcroft can't prosecute people who use marijuana for medical purposes in states that have approved the practice.

Oh, sure, this decision comes from the "Left Coast," and is certain to be appealed. But the medical marijuana movement has already won one battle in the U.S. Supreme Court, protecting doctors who recommend the drug to their patients from ideologically driven federal prosecutors. There's good reason to believe it could - as it should - go two for two.

It's far too soon to know whether these scattered reports of rationality could become epidemic. But they provide an uplifting note on which to enter the new year.

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