Finally, Bush Scores on the Environment... Or Not

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Bush: Ready for a patients' bill of rights fight

George W. Bush is learning the downside of compromise: Sometimes a happy medium means no one is happy at all. Such was the case Friday, when the White House announced it would neither discard nor strictly enforce a Clinton administration rule limiting new roads and development in national forests. With that, Bush managed to simultaneously sideswipe already fuming environmentalists and let the timber industry know that he may not be quite the ally they had initially hoped. In short, the White House has managed to satisfy no one and frustrate just about everybody.

Rather than enforce Clinton's last-minute rules, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman declared the administration will allow local officials to determine the fate of forest land on a case-by-case basis. The changes will go into effect immediately. "Through this action we affirm the department's commitment to the important challenge of protecting roadless values," Veneman told reporters Friday afternoon.

Perhaps it was to be expected: The Bush White House seems to be all thumbs when it comes to the environment. Environmental groups see the White House's latest move as a further indication that the administration disdains their concerns. By "gutting" the Clinton rule, as one member of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund put it, but maintaining a skeleton, the administration can claim it is holding firm on protections even as it offers concessions to industry. "This is clearly an effort to split the difference," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Carney. "Bush has taken a lot of flak for his decisions on arsenic and Kyoto, for example. The White House wants very much to show Bush in a greener light, but the President also has a lot of friends who are powerful western governors and members of the logging and mining industry."

And those powerful interests on the other side of the fence aren't exactly thrilled with Bush. As it fights an uphill battle to reverse an image as crusading anti-environmental marauders, the White House has also disappointed many logging industry leaders by refusing to live up to campaign promises to curtail environmental controls over valuable resources.

In the end, says Carney, this will probably play as a victory for the Bush White House, if only because the fine print will be buried beneath a much larger, pro-environment headline. "The President isn't out there trying to make the Sierra Club happy, he's trying to appeal to the average American who watches the news," says Carney. "And what the average American is going to hear is that Bush has upheld Clinton's rules protecting forests — not that the conditions of the agreement could make the rules much weaker."