In the Arctic they call this time of year "breakup." The giant ice floes crack
and shatter and drift out with the currents, clearing the way for an explosion of
life in the Arctic Ocean. You wouldn't know it from the deadlock and cowardice of
but beyond the blinkered precincts of Capitol Hill a new energy is building,
shaking our nation's environmental-policy stasis. The first cracks appeared in
In their State of the State messages, governors as disparate as
New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, Maryland's Parris Glendening, and Virginia's
James Gilmore laid out ambitious environmental agendas. While we are right to
remain skeptical (Gilmore, for instance, spent the past four years as consigliere
to former Governor George Allen's anti-environmental vendetta), the remarkable
thing is that these plans were proposed at all. Whitman's anti-sprawl campaign,
for example, is the most comprehensive government program in the country.
Talk is still only talk, but at least the subject has changed from "regulatory
reform" and "property rights" to serious environmental issues. And some states,
like North Carolina, are moving from talk to action. When Governor Jim Hunt
appointed former Sierra Club lobbyist Bill Holman as the state's chief
environmental enforcer, chills ran down the spines of Tarheel State polluters.
Even President Clinton is coming out of hibernation, suddenly exercising in his
budget and State of the Union messages the political muscle he flexes only in
even-numbered years. He declared, for example, a moratorium on roadbuilding (and
thus, for practical purposes, logging) in 33 million acres of national forest.
While temporary and incomplete, the ban supports the gradual liberation of the
U.S. Forest Service from its servitude to Big Timber.
The president also proposed a new clean-water initiative, committing for the
first time to restore wetlands faster than we lose them. His acquisition list for
the once-neglected Land and Water Conservation Fund would complete the
Appalachian Trail, establish a migration zone for Yellowstone bison, and buy out
the New World Mine, which threatens the national park's water. And his budget
puts $6 billion into energy conservation and renewable resources, a down payment
on the promises made in Kyoto to reduce U.S. greenhouse pollution. (Oil-state
Republicans denounced these proposals as socialism. Carefulthere's a solar cell
under every bed.)
The spring thaw is even causing fissures in Detroit. Last October's Tokyo Motor
Show created a buzz for electric and hybrid cars, profoundly embarrassing the
U.S. auto companies with their massive gas hogs. First, Ford admitted that it
could produce lower-polluting sport utility vehicles after all-for only $100 more
per vehicle. Chrysler President Thomas Stallkamp initially doubted that Americans
really wanted clean cars, but changed his mind seven hours after Ford's
announcement. General Motors brought up the rear.
The Big Three also conceded that they could make cars that meet the most
stringent California clean-air standards as well as cars that are 70 percent
cleaner than current federal regulations require. Evidence of a hitherto
undetected environmental conscience in Detroit? Perhapsalthough the admission
did come only days after the Sierra Club threatened to sue to force tougher
auto-emission standards. It also followed the failure of two costly polluter
gambles: the unsuccessful $15 million ad assault on the EPA's new clean-air
standards, and the $20 million campaign to shake public support for action to
reduce global warming.
Whatever the motivation, the momentum has changed. Wetlands protection, forest
policy, the auto industry all are on courses that were unthinkable only a few
years ago. In 1995 critics howled when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt
reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park. But when he reintroduced the
Mexican wolf to the Southwest in January, there was barely a yelp.
Happily, we ride that momentum into the current election year. With unemployment
and crime rates down and the economy booming, environmentalists have the best
political opening in decades. Now is the time to build on our gains and lay out a
The president's forest-road moratorium is just a start. We need to follow it with
permanent wilderness protection for those 33 million acres and an end to
commercial logging on all national forests. Tourists in Maine are already asking
why they can't find the Sierra Club's proposed Maine Woods National Park on their
road maps; now they need to ask candidates to put the park on the political map.
In New Hampshire, where the millennial presidential campaign will begin shortly,
it's time to lobby for a White Mountain National Park. Shielding St. Louis from
flooding is going to take far more than the 100,000 acres of new wetlands that
the administration is promising to create annually. (A good start would be to
halt the destruction of wetlands, now at 117,000 acres every year.) From the
Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana to the Headwaters Forest in California, we need to
think bigger than ever. Wildlife needs wild placesand an Endangered Species Act
that starts from that assumption.
It's also time to think about broad new coalitions to sustain our momentum
against the inevitable backlash from the exploiters and polluters this fall.
Rural Americans jeopardized by industrial hog facilities need to join with their
downstream urban neighbors threatened by chemical plants; vegetarian activists
need to find common cause with hunters and fishers. Together, we need to break
through the ice jam in Congress and welcome the new spring.