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Ready, Aim, Agitate: How to protect our environment in a tough new political climate

By Bruce Hamilton

In 1995, when Newt Gingrich became House Speaker and Bob Dole ran the Senate, they attempted to roll back 25 years of environmental progress. Fortunately, once the Sierra Club and other groups mobilized the public, we were able to head off Congress's war on the environment. We had President Clinton and Vice President Gore in the White House during those dark years, and a handful of Republican moderates willing to buck their party's leadership. Vetoes, threats of vetoes, and government shutdowns kept most anti-environmental measures from becoming law. Despite opposition from congressional leaders, we even made progress during Clinton's presidency-through administrative action. We won wolf reintroductions, toxic-waste cleanups, better family-planning policies, new national monuments and reserves, stronger clean-water and -air programs, and protections for 58 million acres of national forests.

Progress will be more difficult in the Bush era. Never in our movement's history have we faced a hostile leadership in both the House and the Senate combined with a cabinet likely to weaken or refuse to enforce regulations and a president who appears prepared to sign any anti-environmental measure sent his way. "We have the House. We have the Senate. We have the White House," crowed House Republican leader Tom DeLay in December. "Which means we have the agenda." A former exterminator, DeLay will push to eradicate environmental protections. George W. Bush won't even have to lead a frontal assault on the environment. All he needs to do is sit back and wait for the bills to arrive on his desk.

Bush has proposed the most anti-environmental cabinet since Ronald Reagan hired the likes of James Watt and Anne Gorsuch. For secretary of the Interior, he chose Gale Norton, Watt's understudy at Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has represented logging, mining, and energy companies trying to privatize our public lands. As an Interior solicitor in the 1980s, Norton focused on opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, and now she's back to try again. For attorney general, Bush wants former Missouri senator John Ashcroft, who achieved a perfect zero from the League of Conservation Voters for his Senate career. Now he'll be in charge of upholding environmental laws that passed over his objections. To head the Energy Department, we have former Michigan senator Spencer Abraham, who sought to abolish his new department when he was in the Congress. In the Senate he voted against improving automobile fuel efficiency and curbing global warming. Even EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, a moderate, has a checkered record. As governor of New Jersey, she cut the state's Department of Environmental Protection budget and abolished the environmental prosecutor's office. Like Bush, she believes in voluntary compliance with pollution laws-a policy that has done little to improve air and water quality in New Jersey. Only Department of Transportation secretary Norm Mineta, a strong advocate of public transit, has a solid record of environmental protection.

Bush has promised to be a healer, to reach across party lines. But his industry-oriented allies aren't thinking about bipartisanship, only golden opportunities. Utah representative Jim Hansen, the new chair of the House Resources Committee, wants to shrink the national monuments that Clinton established and weaken their protections, starting with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Alaska's congressional delegation will undoubtedly join Secretary Norton in pressing for arctic oil development, and continue its push for taxpayer-subsidized clearcutting in the Tongass National Forest. Idaho senator Larry Craig aims to pass a new "forest-health initiative" that would pour millions of dollars into clearcutting our remaining wild forests under the guise of saving trees from wildfires and insects. Industry will renew its attacks on the Clean Air Act and the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup law, under the myopic gaze of a sympathetic attorney general.

The picture is bleak, but far from hopeless. While conservationists in the administration have become scarcer than whooping cranes, the Congress is slightly greener. The same anti-environmental leaders are in place, but their troops have dwindled. Overall, the margin of control by the ruling party is the slimmest in modern history, offering an opportunity to forge alliances to block attacks on the environment. "The largest bipartisan coalition in the Congress is for environmental protection," says Representative George Miller (D-Calif.).

The Sierra Club plans to make sure that America is watching the action. We will publicize key votes in home districts through the Internet, mailings, public meetings, and the media. In the 1998 and 2000 elections, our exposure of backroom deals and midnight legislative riders helped unseat Abraham and Ashcroft as well as other prominent anti-environmentalists such as Senators Slade Gorton of Washington, Alfonse D'Amato of New York, Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, and Rod Grams of Minnesota-despite their incumbent status and huge war chests. This sends a powerful message. Aiming our spotlight on the 107th Congress gives us a good chance of preventing bad bills from ever reaching the president.

Even the prospects for campaign-finance reform have improved. George W. Bush has argued against it, but Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have won broad support for a law to ban huge corporate contributions to political parties. Last year the McCain-Feingold bill died in the Senate. But now it appears to have a filibuster-proof majority.

There's a mountain of work to be done. We will have to resist attempts to substitute ineffective voluntary-compliance rules for enforceable standards. We will need to go to court early and often to insist that existing laws are obeyed. We must reach out to all environmentally concerned sectors of society-inner-city residents, suburbanites, religious groups, hunters and anglers-and provide them with the information they need to make their voices heard.

By picking up your pens, each and every one of you can help hold our public officials accountable. You can remind them that the bipartisan approach to dealing with diesel soot in the air is to remove it. The bipartisan approach to protecting our last wild forests is to spare them from logging and development. The bipartisan consensus on how much arsenic ought to be in the water our kids drink is, quite clearly, none. Those leaders who do not agree will hear a howl of protest-and pay the price in the next election.

Bruce Hamilton is the Sierra Club's conservation director. To help fight for the environment in the Bush era, join the Sierra Club's Environmental Rights Network. Write to or Sierra Club Activist Desk, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105. Members receive a free subscription to the Planet, our monthly activist newsletter, and the Sierra Club Action Daily, an e-mail update.

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