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The Planet
Clinton's Conservation Legacy:
Can Bush Overturn It?

By John Byrne Barry

Bill Clinton worked until the last days of his presidency to put the finishing touches on his considerable environmental legacy, including the final plan to protect 58 million acres of national forests from roadbuilding and logging.

By the end of his tenure, he had protected more land, mostly by executive order, than any president except Teddy Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, who helped set aside huge tracts of Alaska as wilderness (see Alaska: Keeping it Wild, Then and Now,.

But some of those actions could be challenged by the new administration and new Congress.

Utah Rep. James Hansen (R), chair of the House Resources Committee, has already said he will work to review and possibly reverse Clinton's historic roadless initiative. On his first day in office, President Bush ordered the federal register not to print Clinton's most recent batch of rules.

Of course, it's not as simple as flipping the off switch on the printing press. But how secure Clinton's achievements are depends more on the vigilance of the American people than the mischief of the Congress or the Bush administration, said Tanya Tolchin, who coordinated the Sierra Club's massive mobilization last year to support and strengthen the roadless initiative.

Clinton became president with little or no passion for the environment. He was, as New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl, wrote, "a golfer, not a hiker, and he came from Arkansas, where environmental protection had never registered on his political radar."

But with the urging of Vice President Al Gore, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, he took an increasing interest in the environment and found it worked to his political advantage. He learned that there was broad support for clean air and wild forests among the American people.

In addition to spearheading the roadless plan, Clinton designated or expanded 22 national monuments, from the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 to the 172-acre Governor's Island in Upper New York Bay on his last day in office.

His administration's accomplishments were not limited to protecting wildlands. In 1999, the EPA issued new standards cutting soot and smog, and in Clinton's last month, it required the use of low-sulfur diesel fuel and cleaner diesel engines.

While most of these actions were accomplished by executive order, Clinton also worked closely with Congress to pass an ambitious $7.8 billion plan to restore Florida's Everglades and allocate billions of dollars for the Lands Legacy Initiative to buy and restore threatened lands.

Carl Pope, Sierra Club's executive director, called Clinton "one of the great defenders of the environment."

But President Bush has already yanked back for reconsideration anything he could - from the diesel rules to the national monument designations - to see if there are ways to unravel Clinton's legacy.

Can he? Not necessarily.

Will he? Not without a fight from the Sierra Club.

One way President Bush could overturn the roadless policy administratively is by beginning an entire new rulemaking process, said Tolchin. But the Clinton administration held more than 600 hearings, solicited volumes of scientific testimony and collected 1.7 million public comments. Bush would have to equal or surpass that effort. It's highly unlikely he would or could.

The more likely and imminent threat is a congressional vote under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement and Fairness Act, one of the few provisions of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America in 1995 that made it into law.

Under this law, Congress has 60 legislative days to review any new administrative rule and reject it if it is deemed to be too onerous to business interests.

There's little evidence to support such a contention. The Forest Service estimates that the roadless policy would affect less than one half of 1 percent of the nation's timber production and an even smaller fraction of domestic oil and gas production.

Opponents can also attach riders to appropriations bill that would either attack the roadless policy piecemeal or all at once. Or challenge the ruling in the courts, as the timber industry and the state of Idaho have threatened to do.

The Club's defensive strategy in any case, said Tolchin, is not to focus on the roadless policy per se, but to continue building broad public support for defending wildlands and strong environmental protection.

"It doesn't matter whether our opponents are trying to reverse the roadless initiative or open up the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling, we will be opposing them the same way, by mobilizing Americans to howl in protest if they do."

Take Action

Contact your senators and representatives and tell them to vote against any efforts to overturn the roadless protection policy or national monument designations. Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Also see our activist tips to find other ways to participate.

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