How Green Was Bill?
Clinton tried to be the new Teddy Roosevelt, but his efforts to help preserve nature may have been too little, too late
Bill Clinton has always had a problem with time. There he was in
April, standing in a grove of 3,000-year-old giant sequoias in
central California, about to declare them a national monument as
part of his green legacy. But the Secret Service told him he had
only 10 minutes for a "hike in the woods." Clinton bounded off
through the sequoias, fascinated by the 300-ft. skyscrapers that
spring from a seed smaller than a rice grain. He returned, behind
schedule, to make his designation speech before zipping off by
helicopter to a fund raiser in southern California.
Nature operates on a less hurried time scale. Some of the
sequoias Clinton preserved in the 328,000-acre monument are only
the third generation since the last Ice Age, part of a family of
trees that has endured fires, earthquakes, storms and every
change of political leadership since human history began. "I am
not a tree hugger, but these sequoias evoke an almost religious
feeling in me," says Joe Fontaine, 67, a retired schoolteacher
from Bakersfield who has campaigned for 40 years to stop logging
near the sequoias. Sequoias themselves are too brittle for timber
yards, but if trees all around them are logged, their shallow
roots often fail to hold them in the ground. "People look at
their own lifetime, with a beginning and an end, but restoring a
forest takes longer," says Fontaine.
As time runs out for his presidency, Clinton is desperate to
leave an environmental legacy that will not be swept away like
last year's leaves. Just last week he decreed the preservation of
84 million acres of coral reefs in Hawaii, his EPA ordered the
long-delayed dredging of chemical waste from the Hudson River,
and he started a new effort to salvage the Kyoto treaty to fight
global warming after negotiations broke down in the Hague last
month. With a flurry of pronouncements this year, he has locked
away from loggers and developers more public land in the lower 48
states than any other President. But why, his friends ask and his
foes accuse, did he launch so many initiatives at the very end of
his term? Why is he cramming in so much now, when he did so
"In the second term of a presidency, you ought to be thinking
about your legacy before the last six months," says Denis Hayes,
chairman of Earth Day 2000. Clinton may have some regrets. "There
is much more to be done in the years ahead," he said last week at
the National Geographic Society, when announcing the Hawaii
preserve. "Many, many important ecosystems are disappearing just
as we begin to grasp their unique significance."
Clinton's environmental record, like his overall place in
presidential history, is muddled. It can be argued that he has
done more for nature than any other President since Theodore
Roosevelt, but he has also missed opportunities that may never
present themselves again, given the irreversibility of much of
the damage being done to the planet. "Clinton fell short by the
needs of this century, but by the standards of the past century,
he did rather well," says Carl Pope, executive director of the
Having picked green-leaning Al Gore as his running mate, Clinton
won the 1992 election with support from environmentalists. But
when he tried in 1993 to raise royalties for grazing and mining
on public lands, he was faced down by Senators from Western
states led by Democrat Max Baucus of Montana. After that rebuff,
green issues disappeared from his calendar. It wasn't until 1995,
when he began vetoing antienvironmental measures pushed by House
Speaker Newt Gingrich, that he saw that the public would support
a green President. "That was when he realized the people wanted
wild land," says Pope.
Clinton seemed to enjoy nothing more than opposing the
Republicans' more extreme proposals. He blocked initiatives to
weaken wetlands protection, sell off federal forests to ski
resorts, provide exemptions to the Clean Air Act for oil
refineries and repeal the law that regulates pesticides in
foods. But often these issues were merely deferred, not settled.
Most visible is the case of the coastal plain of the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), 19.6 million acres of pristine
tundra in northeast Alaska populated by vast herds of caribou and
other wildlife. Clinton vetoed a 1995 bid by Republicans to open
the refuge for oil drilling. But despite strong campaigning from
conservationists, he never gave the 1.5 million-acre ANWR coastal
plain the protection of national-monument status. While the
refuge would be in no danger from a Gore presidency, George W.
Bush has already said that as President he would open up the area
In 1996 Clinton found a way to expand his environmental role
beyond vetoing Republican proposals. Interior Secretary Bruce
Babbitt introduced him to the glories of the Antiquities Act,
which allows the President to declare an area of historic or
scientific interest a national monument without having to go
through a potentially hostile Congress. Roosevelt used the act in
1908 to protect the Grand Canyon. Standing on his predecessor's
shoulders, Clinton chose the South Rim of the Grand Canyon as a
backdrop for his declaration in 1996 of the 1.7 million-acre
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
Then came Monica Lewinsky, impeachment and a host of other
distractions, and it wasn't until this year that Clinton began to
focus again on the environment. Making up for lost time, he has
created or expanded 13 national monuments, giving new protection
to more than 4 million acres of land, from the sequoias in
California to salmon- spawning grounds in Washington to
archaeological sites in Colorado and ancient ironwood trees in
Arizona. And he is proposing to set aside 58 million acres of
forest as sanctuaries that will be off limits to road builders.
Western Republicans are infuriated by Clinton's new habit of
flying out to some picturesque site in the West and unilaterally
declaring it a national monument with a sweep of his hand.
"Environmental law has become an oxymoron. It just serves
whatever angle the Democrats are pushing," complains James
Buchal, a Portland lawyer and author of The Great Salmon Hoax.
Property-rights advocates accuse the Administration of carrying
out land grabs. A series of lawsuits has been filed challenging
the designation of national monuments throughout the West,
including the sequoia forest. And vice-presidential candidate
Dick Cheney has said a Bush Administration would review many of
the monument declarations Clinton has made.
Environmentalists, for their part, fret that Clinton wasted too
much time before addressing some of the more serious
problems--possibly leaving them in the hands of a Bush presidency.
"There is a tremendous amount of environmental damage the next
Administration could do," says Jim Angell, staff attorney for
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, who is fighting a challenge in
federal court to the designation of five national-monument sites
in the West.
In his second term, Clinton's EPA moved to tighten clean-air
rules, putting particularly tough new restrictions on trucks and
coal-burning power plants, but the proposals are still tied up in
lawsuits. Clinton has also not achieved as much as he wanted in
the fight against global warming. Though Gore led the U.S.
delegation that helped forge the Kyoto climate-change treaty in
1997, it was immediately criticized by opponents in the U.S.
Senate, where it still needs to be ratified. Perhaps the recent
negotiations to fill in the details of the treaty will change the
Senate's negative attitude.
Whatever the political battles ahead, much of what Clinton has
achieved is tremendously popular with the population as a whole.
Some 10 million visitors come to the Sequoia National Forest
every year, and few of them want to see a return to the clear
cutting that was carried out in the area up through the 1980s.
After an hour's hike uphill to the snow line of the forest,
Fontaine points to a 200-ft.-tall sequoia that fell 10 years ago
right on the fringe of a heavily logged area. He thinks erosion
around the 1,200-year-old roots caused its fall and curses
loggers for leaving the tree without any protection. Clinton may
have waited until the last minute to protect the sequoias, but
Fontaine and many other Americans are now determined to keep
them safe far into the future. --With reporting by Dick
Thompson/Washington and Nathan Thornburgh/Seattle