No president has gone after the nation’s environmental laws with the same fury as George W. Bush – and none has been so adept at staying under the radar.
The Bush administration has been gutting key sections of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, laws that have traditionally had bipartisan support and have done more to protect the health of Americans than any other environmental legislation. It has crippled the Superfund program, which is charged with cleaning up millions of pounds of toxic industrial wastes such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and vinyl chloride in more than 1,000 neighborhoods in 48 states. It has sought to cut the EPA’s enforcement division by nearly one-fifth, to its lowest level on record; fines assessed for environmental violations dropped by nearly two-thirds in the administration’s first two years; and criminal prosecutions-the government’s weapon of last resort against the worst polluters-are down by nearly one-third.
The administration has abdicated the decades-old federal responsibility to protect native animals and plants from extinction, becoming the first not to voluntarily add a single species to the endangered species list. It has opened millions of acres of wilderness-including some of the nation’s most environmentally sensitive public lands-to logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling. Under one plan, loggers could take 10 percent of the trees in California’s Giant Sequoia National Monument; many of the Monument’s old-growth sequoias, 200 years old and more, could be felled to make roof shingles. Other national treasures that have been opened for development include the million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona, the 2,000-foot red-rock spires at Fisher Towers, Utah, and dozens of others.
So why aren’t more people aware that George W. Bush is compiling what is arguably the worst environmental record of any president in recent history? The easy explanations-that environmental issues are complex, that war and terrorism push most other concerns off the front pages-are only part of the story. The real reason may be far simpler: Few people know the magnitude of the administration’s attacks on the environment because the administration has been working very hard to keep it that way.
In June, Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey-a veteran timber lobbyist who is now the chief architect of the nation’s forest policy-announced that nearly 3 million acres of land could be opened to timber sales in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the planet’s largest pristine temperate rainforest and home to several species of animals found nowhere else on earth.
The White House has also been darkly brilliant at using the courts to do its dirty work-through methods such as “sweetheart suits,” the practice of encouraging states and private groups to file lawsuits against the federal government, and then agreeing to negotiated settlements that bypass environmental laws without any interference from Congress or the public. In perhaps the most egregious such case, in April the state of Utah and the Interior Department announced that they had reached a settlement involving 10 million acres of federal lands set aside in the 1990s for possible wilderness designation. The deal will allow Utah to sell oil and gas rights on what had largely been pristine areas, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with its multihued cliffs and Cedar Mesa, a fragile desert area near Monument Valley that holds world-renowned archaeological sites-and that is now slated to host a jeep safari.
Two days after the first settlement with Utah-in another closed-door deal-Interior Secretary Gale Norton signed a second, more sweeping compact promising that the federal government would never again so much as study lands for wilderness designation. And not just in Utah: The decision, which effectively freezes a wilderness-protection program that goes back nearly 40 years, applies to more than 200 million acres of Western lands, an area twice as large as California.
But it’s not just the West’s spectacular scenery that’s threatened, or even the purity of our air and water-as important as those are. By using stealth tactics to pursue a corporate agenda, the Bush administration is undermining the very landscape of democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry, transparency in government, and lively public debate. A culture of deception and deceit erodes all of these-and that is probably the most serious “environmental” damage of all.
(Much more to read there.)
Well, here’s some more information to keep in mind for next years’ election.