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How Green Was Bill?

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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 little before?

"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 Sierra Club.

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 for drilling.

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


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Cover Date: December 18, 2000

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