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How Bush gets his way on the environment

By Terry McCarthy

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With the nation distracted by terrorism and the economy, the president has quietly maneuvered to challenge limits on drilling, mining, logging and power generation

As she ascends to a 4,500-ft.-high ridgeline overlooking the Kern River in the California Sierras, Ruby Johnson Jenkins says she smells trouble. Stretching out before her is a vast panorama of blackened slopes, a grim legacy of the fire last August that burned more than 150,000 acres of the Sequoia National Forest.

But it isn't the charred timber that makes her wrinkle her nose. The ill odor, she says, is coming from Washington, specifically from President George W. Bush's controversial plan to increase logging in national forests in the name of reducing the risk of fires.

"There are two battles for this forest," says the sprightly Jenkins, 77, who has co-written three books on hiking the Sierras. "The first was the fire itself. Now there's the battle to save the trees." Not everything in the forest burned. Clumps of oaks still show green against the blackened slopes, and the fire stopped short of the ancient stands of sequoias.

But among the Forest Service's restoration options is a plan to take out as much as 10 million board feet of timber from Sequoia National Monument. Although some ecologists say it's a necessary treatment for forests that will wither without resuscitation, from the mouths of Bush allies, it smells rotten to many environmentalists.

"It seems as if they've been looking for an opportunity to log," says Jenkins, "and the fires have suddenly handed them a way to get around the usual restrictions."

If she is right, it is yet another example of how the Bush Administration has managed to get what it wants on the environment. For two years, the President has found ways to bypass restrictions on oil and gas drilling, mining, logging and coal-fired power generation.

Within days of the Republican gains of last November's elections, the Administration stepped up what critics view as an all-out assault on the environment with a series of pronouncements: that snowmobiles could operate in Yellowstone National Park, oil drilling could expand in Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, the National Marine Fisheries Service would ease salmon protections in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington would soften rules on logging and energy conservation. Opponents predict a new wave of even bolder measures in the coming months that could affect water and air quality and renew efforts to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.

In response to the critics, White House spokesman Scott McClellan says, "There are a number of alarmist groups out there that are trying to promote fear in order to boost their own fund raising."

Bush has paid a low political price for his aggressive steps, partly because his opponents have been largely ineffectual: environmental groups ritually accuse the Administration of trying to reverse three decades of environmental policies, but they are preaching mostly to the converted. Earlier this month, the attempt by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman to launch a bill to limit greenhouse gases met with stern disapproval from the White House--and little apparent interest from the public.

Although Americans as a whole are uneasy about the President's environmental stewardship--a CBS News/New York Times poll taken in November said 46% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats thought that the Federal Government should do more to regulate environmental and safety practices in business--there is scant sign of public outrage on any single issue.

This is partly due, no doubt, to the more immediate threats preoccupying the nation. Green issues played almost no role in the midterm elections. "The environment is not going to be the defining issue in an election when terrorism, war and a limping economy are stacked on top of it," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. And it's partly owing, surely, to the fact that conservationists have been crying wolf for too long: by opposing every tree-cutting and development project across the West, they have diluted their credibility on the big issues.

But credit Bush for a successful strategy, in particular for having learned from previous mistakes. When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used Republican control of Congress to assault regulations governing mining, oil drilling and air and water pollution in his 1994 Contract with America, the measures were quickly derailed in committee or vetoed by President Bill Clinton.

"Gingrich thought he had a mandate to push antienvironmental measures, and he just put a huge bull's-eye on his back," says Scott Stoermer, communications director for the League of Conservation Voters.

Bush, by contrast, has learned to stand oblique to the current of public opinion on the environment, allowing criticism to slide off his back. His lieutenants in Interior, Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have quietly focused on the regulatory route, using administrative guidance and legal loopholes to achieve what Gingrich could not obtain in the full glare of the legislative process.

"They are rejecting the full-frontal-assault approach that gets a lot of media attention in favor of death by a thousand strokes of the pen," contends Stoermer. The Republicans are also learning how to spin environmental issues in their direction. In a confidential document distributed to G.O.P. Governors and members of Congress just before last November's elections, Republican pollster Frank Luntz advised party members to refer to themselves as "conservationists."

The document said, "The first (and most important) step to neutralizing the [Republican environmental] problem and eventually bringing people around to your point of view on environmental issues is to convince them of your 'sincerity' and 'concern.'"

Instead of announcing new logging quotas, for example, Bush traveled to Oregon last August to announce the Healthy Forests Initiative. Judicious thinning of trees--which the Forest Service calls "management-caused changes in vegetation"--would prevent the fires that were raging across the West, he suggested, pointing to ecological research.

It was left to bureaucrats to explain later that the initiative would provide for the logging of trees as much as 30 in. in diameter and would make it easier for forest managers to circumvent time-consuming environmental-impact statements when drawing up logging plans.

But ecologists' views vary widely on the right ways to manage forests. Wally Covington, a Northern Arizona University professor, believes the President's forest-restoration project is on the right track, although he acknowledges the potentially corrupting role of private logging interests. "Suspicions are not unfounded, based on history, that when you start [restoring], commercial interests might be the tail that wags the dog," he says. "None of us in conservation ecology want to see that happen."

When more intractable environmental disputes arise, the Administration tends to shunt them toward its allies in Congress. Bush's recent proposals on amending the Clean Air Act allow older power plants to avoid installing costly pollution controls that are mandatory for newer ones. The White House says the plan will encourage old power plants to pollute less, but environmentalists say it's a free ticket for power generators to keep polluting.

Nine states are suing the government to block the proposal, and it will also face a strong battle in Congress. The EPA's announcement two weeks ago that it was considering scaling back protections under the Clean Water Act was equally controversial. And attempts to open the ANWR to drilling are likely to set off another fierce struggle.

The new chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, said last week that he would try to attach the anwr proposal to the budget bill, which would deny Democrats the chance to filibuster (the budget bill requires a simple majority to pass).

Despite its loyalties to the extractive industries, the Administration ultimately runs on political expediency, not ideological conviction. When Bush's decision to drop a Clinton-introduced standard on arsenic in drinking water caused a public stir in 2001, the President quickly reversed his position to avoid wasting political capital.

Although several recent court rulings have gone against Bush--blocking attempts by the Administration to start logging in 58.5 million acres of areas declared roadless by Clinton, drill off the coast of California and explore for oil and gas near Utah's Arches and Canyonlands National Parks--the Administration has tried to find ways to fight back.

Many of these efforts are being led by Bush appointees in Interior and Agriculture who came from the industries they now regulate. "They were very familiar with the regulations they wanted changed," says Gloria Flora, a Clinton-era supervisor of the Lewis and Clark Forest in Montana. "These people were on a mission from the day they walked in the door."

How far they will get is uncertain, particularly as the President becomes preoccupied with a possible war in the Middle East and an election campaign next year. "Every corporate lobbyist is faxing their legislators' offices, saying, We need to get everything out of 2003, because 2004 is too close to the elections," says Clapp of the National Environmental Trust.

Ruby Johnson Jenkins, who routinely takes 10-mile hikes, will keep trying to save the 30-in. trees in the forest she has known for years. "They'll have meetings, and I'll go, and I'll write letters," she says. "I have to. I consider this my forest, not theirs." Unfortunately for Jenkins, the Bush Administration doesn't appear to agree.

--With reporting by Dan Cray/Kernville, Pat Dawson/Billings and Eric Roston and Adam Zagorin/Washington

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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