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Clinton Environmental Record Justifies Criticism

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion editor

Five months after his reinauguration, President Bill Clinton has come under sharp criticism from environmentalists and conservation groups. Because the president relies on Al Gore for advise on environmental matters, the Vice President has come under fire as well. Some environmentalists have even gone so far as to suggest that, unless something changes soon, they will throw their support in 2000 behind Richard A. Gephardt, current House minority leader and long-suffering presidential hopeful.

How did it come to this? After all, Gore was every environmentalist's poster child just a few years ago, and Clinton used the environment as a key plank in his 1996 campaign against Bob Dole.

However, even in last year's election, the president's record on the environment wasn't based on a record of positive achievement but instead on his attacks on Congress. The president had prevented deep cuts in spending on the Environmental Protection Agency and he claimed credit for stopping the most egregious attempts to revise regulations such as those regarding endangered species and water quality standards. But the real Clinton environmental record centers not on the salvation of Nixon-era regulations and agencies, but on what has been left undone.

Criticism from environmental groups has centered on the lack of action in two important areas: local air-quality control standards and global greenhouse emissions. On air-quality, the White House has taken what it would like to call a centrist position. The Clinton administration remained silent on demands by EPA head Carol Browner for tougher standards, but also resisted Republican demands for changes that might reduce standards for certain localities.

On greenhouse gases, the White House can make no claims to centrism. Five years ago then-Senator Al Gore ostentatiously turned up in Rio de Janeiro to criticize the Bush administration's prevarications on the global climate change treaty. Gore demanded tough global standards, strong American leadership, and even a "Marshall Plan" for funding other nations' programs to reduce emissions. Although the Bush administration eventually signed the treaty, the United States has refused to commit to a timetable for reduction of its own emissions. The Clinton administration has even gone so far as to declare that other countries targets are too ambitious.

As a Westerner, I admit that I have been less concerned about urban air pollution and greenhouse emissions than about the rules governing the use of federal lands. The U.S. government owns the vast majority of land in most Western states. The land is supervised by various agencies and bureaus including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Each of these agencies came under harsh criticism during the Reagan-Bush era. The BLM, for example, owns vast tracts of land, much of which are used by private ranchers for grazing their privately-owned herds. Although private landowners have steadily raised the market price of range-land, the federal government has not, resulting in a vast federal subsidy to a few lucky ranchers. In 1992 Clinton's new secretary of the interior, Bruce Babbit, announced that federal grazing fees would be gradually raised to market level. Congress, however, proved unwilling and Clinton effectively bowed to Western ranch interests by preemptively giving up the fight before it had begun.

Perhaps even more egregious has been the Clinton administration's ridiculous policy on logging federal lands. As with BLM grazing fees, the federal government sells trees from federal lands to private logging companies at a fraction (anywhere from one fourth to one third) of their market value. But the deal gets sweater even yet: In order to help private logging firms remove trees from the national lands, the U.S. Forest Service spends billions of dollars of taxpayer money to construct roads to get the loggers to their trees. Bare-bones logging access costs $30,000 per mile and the road created will not even last long enough to sustain multi-use access after the trees are gone. The Forest Service also pays massive litigation costs for logging beyond that allowed by such laws as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The bizarre aspects of Forest Service policy have long-since made their way into bureaucratic lore. As critics both inside and outside the agency have noted, the Forest Service is run by professional foresters - people who are paid to know about removing trees, not managing lands and public money.

The Forest Service itself is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; public money is not allocated to the forest service for managing land, but for bringing in a good crop. But since the Forest Service sells trees at a loss (even excluding road construction, environmental impact studies, and litigation), a bigger crop means a bigger expense to the taxpayer. And yet, agency officials can only move up by logging more, not less.

What has the Clinton administration's policy been on logging federal lands? Initially, Clinton charged aggressively left: Promising to run the national forests "scientifically," Clinton called the Timber Summit, which endorsed the principle of "ecosystem management" (i.e. management that would take habitat and water quality issues into account). Clinton hired Jack Ward Thomas, a wildlife biologist, to implement the new policy.

Unfortunately, the policy went nowhere. Unsupported by the White House, Ward's proposals were deep-sixed by underlings in the Forest Service and members of Congress who opposed his efforts. Costly tree-farming continued unabated: The General Accounting Office estimated that the U.S. government lost $1 billion cutting down and selling its own trees between 1992 and 1994. At that rate, it would be cheaper to pay loggers directly out of the U.S. Treasury than to keep them at their jobs. But worse was yet to come.

In 1995, North Carolina Representative Charles Taylor (a forester by profession) proposed and passed a bill to allow the Forest Service to sell and log "salvage" timber. Salvage timber, which formerly meant just dead trees, was legally redefined to include any trees associated with dead trees. In other words, if there is one dead tree in the forest, the entire hillside can be sold and carted away. Clinton could have vetoed the measure. Instead, he bowed to industry and special interest concerns and, on July 27, 1995, signed the Taylor bill.

Since then, the Forest Service has aggressively and enthusiastically supported "salvage" logging. Timber yields (and taxpayer losses) are up, with three-fourths of the sales being classified as "salvage" operations. Al Gore has called the salvage law "the biggest mistake" Clinton has made as president. And yet nothing has been done.

Clinton's critics have come down hard on him for his environmental record, but perhaps worse than the record is what the president's policy means for representative democracy. In his infamous book, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore demanded that political leaders take a stand on the environment, if for no other reason than to represent the voices of those who want to see the world's natural heritage preserved. Before, when the Democrats were out of office, at least liberals could console themselves that someone was speaking out on their behalf. Now no one is.