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The Planet


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 California desert.

Newt World Order

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 Capra film.

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 environmental protections.

"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 two years:

The Anti-Environment Attack

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.

Mining Law and Grazing Reform

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.

Endangered Species

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.

National Parks and Wilderness

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 again."

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 wild lands.


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.

Wetlands and Clean Water

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.

Safe Drinking Water

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 anti-environmental legislation.

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 environmental protections.

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.

Forest Service Reform

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.

Global Warming

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.

Oceans and Marine Mammals

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.

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