How Bush Gets His Way On The Environment

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Bush, helping volunteers in the Adirondacks on Earth Day 2002, has paid a low political price for his environmental actions

As she ascends to a 4,500-ft.-high ridgeline overlooking the Kern River in the California Sierras, Ruby Johnson Jenkins says she smells trouble. Stretching out before her is a vast panorama of blackened slopes, a grim legacy of the fire last August that burned more than 150,000 acres of the Sequoia National Forest. But it isn't the charred timber that makes her wrinkle her nose. The ill odor, she says, is coming from Washington, specifically from President George W. Bush's controversial plan to increase logging in national forests in the name of reducing the risk of fires.

"There are two battles for this forest," says the sprightly Jenkins, 77, who has co-written three books on hiking the Sierras. "The first was the fire itself. Now there's the battle to save the trees." Not everything in the forest burned. Clumps of oaks still show green against the blackened slopes, and the fire stopped short of the ancient stands of sequoias. But among the Forest Service's restoration options is a plan to take out as much as 10 million board feet of timber from Sequoia National Monument. Although some ecologists say it's a necessary treatment for forests that will wither without resuscitation, from the mouths of Bush allies, it smells rotten to many environmentalists. "It seems as if they've been looking for an opportunity to log," says Jenkins, "and the fires have suddenly handed them a way to get around the usual restrictions."

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If she is right, it is yet another example of how the Bush Administration has managed to get what it wants on the environment. For two years, the President has found ways to bypass restrictions on oil and gas drilling, mining, logging and coal-fired power generation. Within days of the Republican gains of last November's elections, the Administration stepped up what critics view as an all-out assault on the environment with a series of pronouncements: that snowmobiles could operate in Yellowstone National Park, oil drilling could expand in Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, the National Marine Fisheries Service would ease salmon protections in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington would soften rules on logging and energy conservation. Opponents predict a new wave of even bolder measures in the coming months that could affect water and air quality and renew efforts to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. In response to the critics, White House spokesman Scott McClellan says, "There are a number of alarmist groups out there that are trying to promote fear in order to boost their own fund raising."

Bush has paid a low political price for his aggressive steps, partly because his opponents have been largely ineffectual: environmental groups ritually accuse the Administration of trying to reverse three decades of environmental policies, but they are preaching mostly to the converted. Earlier this month, the attempt by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman to launch a bill to limit greenhouse gases met with stern disapproval from the White House — and little apparent interest from the public. Although Americans as a whole are uneasy about the President's environmental stewardship — a CBS News/New York Times poll taken in November said 46% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats thought that the Federal Government should do more to regulate environmental and safety practices in business — there is scant sign of public outrage on any single issue.

This is partly due, no doubt, to the more immediate threats preoccupying the nation. Green issues played almost no role in the midterm elections. "The environment is not going to be the defining issue in an election when terrorism, war and a limping economy are stacked on top of it," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. And it's partly owing, surely, to the fact that conservationists have been crying wolf for too long: by opposing every tree-cutting and development project across the West, they have diluted their credibility on the big issues.

But credit Bush for a successful strategy, in particular for having learned from previous mistakes. When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used Republican control of Congress to assault regulations governing mining, oil drilling and air and water pollution in his 1994 Contract with America, the measures were quickly derailed in committee or vetoed by President Bill Clinton. "Gingrich thought he had a mandate to push antienvironmental measures, and he just put a huge bull's-eye on his back," says Scott Stoermer, communications director for the League of Conservation Voters.

Bush, by contrast, has learned to stand oblique to the current of public opinion on the environment, allowing criticism to slide off his back. His lieutenants in Interior, Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have quietly focused on the regulatory route, using administrative guidance and legal loopholes to achieve what Gingrich could not obtain in the full glare of the legislative process. "They are rejecting the full-frontal-assault approach that gets a lot of media attention in favor of death by a thousand strokes of the pen," contends Stoermer. The Republicans are also learning how to spin environmental issues in their direction. In a confidential document distributed to G.O.P. Governors and members of Congress just before last November's elections, Republican pollster Frank Luntz advised party members to refer to themselves as "conservationists." The document said, "The first (and most important) step to neutralizing the [Republican environmental] problem and eventually bringing people around to your point of view on environmental issues is to convince them of your 'sincerity' and 'concern.'"

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