It was the do-nothing Congress. Two long years of filibusters, standoffs and gridlock.
But after November's elections, environmentalists may soon be looking back on the 103rd
Congress rosy with nostalgia.
For all its stinginess, the last Congress did lay one golden egg, the California Desert
Protection Act -- a piece of legislation that had suffered perennial defeat in far
friendlier Congresses until Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- and the Sierra Club --- shepherded it
to victory in 1994.
Other major pieces of environmental legislation that came extremely close to passage --
Mining Law reform and the Safe Drinking Water Act, for example -- could normally be
expected to be taken up anew in the next session.
But all that changed on Nov. 8. Americans woke up the morning after Election Day to a
vastly changed political landscape. Overnight, the entire green agenda -- past, present
and future -- seemed threatened.
Even the California Desert Protection Act itself, product of dozens of compromises and
years of negotiation between both parties, was not safe. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who
nearly scuttled the legislation during House deliberations in 1994, has vowed to use the
appropriations process in 1995 to cut off funding for the new parks and wilderness in the
The prospect of a congressional juggernaut rolling back decades of environmental
progress is not only daunting, it's a very real possibility. The new majority leadership,
borrowing from "It's a Wonderful Life," would like to confront environmentalists
with a vision of what life would be like if they had never been born. The outlook is
bleak, at least as dark as Pottersville, that Dickensian vision of a town robbed of the
contributions of George Bailey, the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1946 Frank
That fact alone should keep environmentalists from jumping, like Mr. Bailey, off a
snowy bridge. But there are several good reasons why we should not only be able to blunt,
but even turn back the attacks expected over the next two years. Congress is an important
-- but not the only -- forum for advancing environmental issues. As stories elsewhere in
this issue demonstrate, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups continue to score
important gains in the legal arena and at the state, local and international levels.
In recent polls, a majority of Americans have said they would like to see the
environment better protected; an even larger number stands opposed to dismantling existing
"We can't reverse the results of the election overnight," said Bruce
Hamilton, Sierra Club conservation director, "but we can mobilize public support
for the environment so that the new cast of lawmakers understand that the American people
will not stand for weakening environmental protections."
The new leadership will also find it difficult to justify using the elections as an
excuse to attack the environment when the environment never figured as a campaign issue.
"Some anti-environmental leaders are treating the election results as a
mandate from the public to turn back the clock on environmental protection programs,"
said Hamilton. "We know this is not true, but we will need to demonstrate our
power to prove our point."
In light of the new political reality, it is important to reassess our strategy for
next year as we review the extraordinary accomplishments pieced together during the last
So-called takings proposals were floated several times in the House in 1994 but were
handily defeated. Takings measures are designed to weaken environmental and public health
protections by forcing governments to compensate landowners when a regulation affects the
value of their property.
Attempts to weaken protection for ancient forests, endangered species, wetlands and
wilderness were also defeated. Similarly, the so-called Wise Use movement made little
headway in its campaign to challenge environmental laws at the state level.
The most remarkable -- and underreported -- victory may have come in Arizona where Club
activists helped trounce Proposition 300, a ballot initiative that would have severely
limited the state's ability to enforce or enact environmental, health and safety laws.
Anti-environmentalists are gearing up for a renewed assault on environmental
protections, however, and the election results have increased their numbers in both
Congress and state legislatures.
Sierra Club leaders have taken stock of the shift in the balance of power and have
decided to focus the Club's resources on a coordinated response to the anti-environmental
movement. In our recent campaign priority balloting, more than half of the Club's chapters
and groups who voted picked a single theme as their top priority for next year: combatting
anti-environmentalists and stopping takings legislation.
Takings measures, unfunded mandates and risk-assessment proposals -- all variations on
a single Wise Use theme of making environmental protections too expensive to enact -- are
expected to rear their heads early as part of new House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract
With America [see box]. On the Senate side, new Majority Leader Bob Dole has pledged to
make the first bill introduced in the Senate an unfunded mandates bill.
Despite our best efforts, the 1872 Mining Law defied reform yet again in 1994. Even
though reform bills did pass both House and Senate, negotiations to reconcile the strong
House bill and the weak Senate bill collapsed when key senators came under pressure from
the mining industry.
Environmentalists are taking advantage of a one-year moratorium on new filings for land
patenting -- a process by which mining companies take title of public lands for as little
as $5 per acre -- to rally public support for real mining reform. A recent nationwide poll
demonstrated widespread support for ending the system by which the hardrock mining
industry gets rich at the public's expense.
The prognosis for comprehensive mining reform in 1995 is not good, especially in light
of the new heirs apparent to the House and Senate natural resource committees: Rep. Don
Young (R-Alaska) and Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska). Environmentalists will continue to
build public support for mining law reform while pressing for administrative actions to
protect fragile lands.
Reforming the public lands grazing program was another near miss in the last Congress
-- stymied by a 1993 filibuster led by Western senators from both parties. When the
congressional reform path was blocked, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt launched a series
of local meetings throughout the West. The resulting proposal would impose hikes in the
fees paid by ranchers for use of public lands -- but not enough to bring fees in line with
those charged for use of private lands. Western legislators have threatened to overturn
even this modest proposal if it is enacted.
It remains to be seen how the GOP will resolve its mandate to cut government spending
with the sizable subsidies doled out to miners and ranchers living off public lands. Club
volunteers throughout the West will continue to demonstrate that there is widespread
support among Westerners for public land law reforms.
During the past two years, the Sierra Club used the Endangered Species Act to protect
salmon, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, wood storks and other wildlife species that depend
on rapidly disappearing habitat. Plans to strengthen the law were delayed in the face of
an increasingly hostile Congress, and environmentalists were lucky to hold the line on
endangered species protections.
The fight will only intensify in 1995. The leaders of last year's assault on the
Endangered Species Act, Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Billy Joe Tauzin (D-La.), are
expected to renew their attacks early in the new Congress. Stopping them will be made more
difficult in the absence of two environmental bulwarks. Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and
Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) will be ousted from the chairs of key environmental committees:
Natural Resources and Merchant Marine and Fisheries.
On the Senate side, Sens. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) have said
they will try to significantly weaken the Act. ?'?I think we now have the votes to change
it so people count as much as bugs,?%? Packwood told the Seattle Times after the election.
And though Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), a supporter of the Endangered Species Act, will
likely chair the Senate Environment Committee, other committee Republicans, notably Sen.
Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), are already boasting about their plans to gut the Act next year.
The passage of the California Desert Protection Act in the final hours before
adjournment was a monumental victory for the Sierra Club. In a single bill, we protected
more than 7 million acres of new national parks and wilderness areas. In November, more
than 250,000 acres of pristine Alaskan wildlife habitat were designated for protection in
the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, thanks to a longstanding grassroots campaign.
Such victories will likely be more elusive in 1995, because the new congressional
committee leadership is hostile to parks and wilderness. Young and Murkowski, the incoming
chairs of the House and Senate natural resources committees, have vigorously opposed every
major wilderness or parks bill during their tenure in Congress.
The Alaskan twosome are also expected to use their new influence to reopen efforts to
drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and expand logging in Alaska's Tongass
National Forest. Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah), the likely chair of the House National Parks
and Public Lands Subcommittee, has already declared his intent to set up a National Parks
Closure Commission -- similar to the Military Base Closure Commission -- to declassify
existing national parks. He has already suggested eliminating Nevada's Great Basin
National Park, saying "If you've been there once, you don't need to go
Given this anti-wilderness influence on the key committees, it will be difficult for
environmentalists to pass much-needed bills such as the Northern Rockies Ecosystem
Protection Act or the Utah Wilderness Act. It's essential to find other ways ---
legislative, administrative, and judicial -- to protect existing preserves and vulnerable
In any other year, Congress would have enacted a new Superfund law. Last summer, a
carefully crafted compromise, supported by a remarkable coalition of polluters, insurers
and environmentalists -- as well as the Clinton administration and legislators from both
political parties -- appeared ready to become one of the few environmental measures
destined for passage in 1994.
Instead, it became yet another victim of the Republican vendetta against
Democrat-sponsored legislation in the waning days of Congress. It was ultimately killed by
Dole and Gingrich, who threatened to destroy the delicate compromise by attaching takings
and unfunded mandates amendments. The bipartisan compromise should resurface next year,
but whether the Republican leadership chooses to enact reform or dismantle the entire
program remains to be seen.
After convincing the Bush administration to drop the last-minute wetlands regulations
proposed by a lame-duck Dan Quayle in late 1992, Sierra Club activists found wetlands
under attack during congressional reauthorization of the Clean Water Act. The misleadingly
named Wetlands Conservation and Management Act, sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Hayes (D-La.), was
turned aside, but Hayes is expected to revive his bill in 1995.
The wetlands dynamic in 1995 will feature -- as with the Endangered Species Act above
-- anti-environmental House members eager to gut wetlands protections squared off against
John Chafee in his critical post as chair of the Senate Environment Committee.
The delays that characterized much of the legislative sessions of the 103rd Congress
ultimately spelled doom for the Safe Drinking Water Act reauthorization bill that Club
leaders worked hard to pass in 1994. Though the bill made it through both House and
Senate, it was sabotaged by Republican leaders using it as a vehicle for enacting
New Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, one of the key players in the attack on safe
drinking water legislation, has said he will take the same approach to safe drinking water
legislation if it comes up in 1995. The saving grace of the Safe Drinking Water Act
reauthorization was an amendment offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that guaranteed
protection for children, the ill and the elderly. In 1995, inclusion of the Boxer
amendment will be critical to gaining environmentalists' support for a new Safe Drinking
Water Act reauthorization.
The 103rd Congress returned in a lame-duck session in late November to approve the
General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, or GATT. Unlike NAFTA, which contained some
environmental provisions, GATT has aroused near-universal opposition among the U.S.
environmental community because of its generally acknowledged threat to this nation's
The new Republican Congress could both foster and hinder green reform of GATT. Many
Republicans are hostile to the World Trade Organization, the governing body for GATT, on
the grounds that it threatens U.S. sovereignty. If U.S. environmental laws are indeed
attacked as trade barriers, the Club can mobilize grassroots pressure on Congress and the
World Trade Organization to ensure that U.S. laws are kept intact. The Sierra Club will
also have to strengthen coordination with environmental non-governmental organizations in
other countries to document the disparities between the performance of American
multinational corporations in the United States and abroad. As demonstrated by the Club's
successful campaign against Disney's planned amusement park in Virginia, large
corporations are vulnerable when their good name is questioned.
Sierra Club population activists in 1994 first wrung record funding for international
family planning programs from Congress, then spread the Club's message in Cairo during the
successful U.N. International Conference on Population and Development in September.
Unfortunately, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), slated to chair the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, has hinted that he will be looking to both scale back and impose severe
restrictions on U.S. funding for international family planning. Because the $510 million
allocated last year fell short of the $875 million activists say is needed annually, the
Club's population activists face the daunting task in 1995 of both thwarting Helms while
striving to increase funding from Congress.
In the summer of 1994, a three-year federal ban on logging in ancient forests was
lifted and the Clinton administration's "Option 9" forest plan was implemented.
In response, the Club sued the Clinton administration for the plan's failure to adequately
protect the last remaining old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Two forest measures that gathered substantial support were the Headwaters Forest
Protection Act [see story on p.6] and Rep. John Bryant's (D-Texas) Forest Diversity Act.
The Headwaters lost its champion, Rep. Dan Hamburg (D-Calif.), in November, but forest
activists will continue to build support for the forest diversity bill in 1995, urging
Congress to cut taxpayer-subsidized timber sales on public lands.
Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Program, was appointed in
September to a presidential commission set up to advise the White House on curbing vehicle
emissions that contribute to global warming. The administration has promised to act on the
commission's recommendations after the so-called car talks wrap up next September.
The Sierra Club has identified higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards as the biggest
single step the United States could take toward curbing global warming. Raising fuel
efficiency, or CAFE, standards would also save oil, slash the U.S. trade deficit and cut
smog. The Club has generated strong bipartisan support in Congress for higher CAFE
standards and is now urging the White House to act administratively to raise the standards
from 27.5 miles per gallon to 45 mpg for cars, and from 20 to 34 mpg for minivans and
other light trucks.
With the world's great fisheries in precipitous decline, it is increasingly critical
that Congress overhaul the Magnuson Act, the nation's principal law governing ocean
fisheries. But a reauthorization effort stalled in the closing days of the 103rd Congress
and, with the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee on the GOP chopping block,
prospects for quick action in the new Congress are murky at best.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act successfully navigated the 103rd Congress and was
reauthorized with some weakening amendments. The Club's Marine Committee will be
monitoring the law's implementation in 1995.
SOURCE: NEIL HAMILTON, THE PLANET, DEC
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