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Activists battle Bush assault on California green laws


California, the state with the nation’s toughest environmental laws and regulations, faces an attack on all fronts from the Bush administration, according to the state’s conservation activists and leaders.

From undermining the Golden State’s recent legislation on reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions to changing forest management practices in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, long-time environmental experts say the Bush White House is undertaking an unusually ambitious campaign that will undermine California’s ability to protect its environment.

Recent federal policy changes and administration interventions within the nation’s most populous state demonstrate “a dangerous hostility to the very idea of environmental stewardship,” Sierra Club president Carl Pope, told NCR. “Anyone who shares the broad national consensus that this country is committed to protecting its citizens from easily avoidable risks from polluted air, contaminated water or reckless toxic waste dumping should be deeply concerned.”

The deepest fear, many say, is that if the administration’s initiatives are successful here, they will take hold in other areas of the country. In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental advocacy group, just released its annual report, titled “Rewriting the Rules: The Bush Administration’s Assault on the Environment,” which details continuing environmental retreats nationwide by the Bush administration over the past year (see related story).

California’s environmentalists tick off a list of recent moves within their state:

  • The administration is driving for an extension of offshore oil drilling rights in California’s southern coastal waters. The state had declared its coastal waters off-limits to new oil wells, yet the U.S. Interior Department wants to extend 36 oil and gas leases without requiring oil companies to seek review and approval under the state’s federally approved coastal zone management program.

A destructive oil spill in 1969 in offshore waters of Santa Barbara inaugurated California’s determined, decades-long drive to protect its shores, its inland waters and forests. Preserving the ban on offshore drilling has been a required part of the platform of any Californian running for office, Democrat or Republican, anywhere in the state for the last 30 years. Bush’s Interior Department wants to help reverse this solidly green trend in the Golden State, critics say.

  • At the same time the White House seems to be pushing to overturn a Clinton-era management plan for the national forests of the Sierra Nevada, replacing a conservation-based approach with one that would accelerate logging, according to reports that appeared in late January in The Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Recently announced plans indicate that the U.S. Forest Service will allow “thinning” in the state’s national forests, which add up to 10 percent of the nation’s public forests. In a shift in how forests are managed across California, the service is preparing to let timber companies log more “medium-sized” trees from 11 million acres.

California Regional Forester Jack Blackwell contends the extra logging activity and revenues will help speed clearing of brush and small saplings that have fueled huge wildfires over the last 10 years. Conservationists say that this brush is the result of extensive logging that took place in the 1980s, and that a return to logging will further increase fire dangers. They threaten to sue if current plans develop into action.

Blackwell is being praised by the timber industry, which has seen logging decline in the state’s national forests by 90 percent in the last decade.

  • California is home to giant sequoia trees, the world’s largest living things. California’s state tree, they occur nowhere else on earth. The U.S. Forest Service, with the blessing of the Bush administration, also plans to put logging up front in its plans for the future of California’s Sequoia National Monument (see related story).

Environmentalists point out that the Forest Service, as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is currently overseen by former timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey. In early January, one of Rey’s deputies, Dave Tenny, met with Jack Blackwell in California.

Some think the environmentalists have lost their sense of balance. David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association, a lobbying organization for the state’s timber industry, told NCR: “The issue in the new forestry plans is not harvesting timber, but rather doing what is best for the environment in the long run. There was huge gridlock built into the old plan.”

Of 227 projects currently up for decision in the state’s national forests, 85 percent were appealed or are in litigation, according to Bischel. “These new forestry plans map a way forward, in a socially, economically and environmentally responsible manner.”

He also said that statewide there are only four family-owned timber-harvesting businesses operating eight processing mills that service the 11 million acres of national forest lands. “So we’re not talking here about a vast industry conspiracy.

“There’s a lot of shrill, sky-is-falling-type rhetoric going around now,” Bischel said. “But in the long run in California these plans will result in more old-growth forests preserved and even more and better wildlife habitat.”

  • Besides forests, critics point out that the administration has targeted rivers, streams and marshes as well. Officially declaring 2002 the “Year of Clean Water,” President Bush challenged Americans to help the administration “finish the business of restoring and protecting our nation’s water for present and future generations.” Yet last year the White House also approved a controversial Army Corps of Engineers proposal to relax nationwide permit rules. These rules, established by Congress in 1977, allow the corps to issue permits for activities that discharge fill or dredged material into wetlands or streams.

For California, this would affect vast tracts of marshlands up and down the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

In addition to the threats to wetlands and forests accomplished by reshaping federal rules and policies, the Bush administration, say critics, is helping to directly undermine the showpieces of California environmental legislation, challenging the state’s efforts to legislate protection of its air and the world’s climate.

‘Aggressively anti-environmental’

Last October attorneys from the Justice Department joined General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler in their lawsuit to overturn California’s historic Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, requiring car manufacturers in the state to sell a certain number of zero-emission and “advanced technology” ZEVs, such as hybrid gas-electric cars. The carmakers argued that mandating hybrids -- since they burn traditional fuel -- amounted to a regulation of fuel economy.

“Federal regulations govern fuel economy. You can’t have states passing their own fuel economy laws,” said Eron Shosteck, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington.

Justice Department lawyers filed an amicus brief with the federal court in Fresno, supporting the automakers’ case. It was the first time that any federal administration had ever challenged a California auto emissions plan. The judge sided with the plaintiffs and enjoined the ZEV rules. California has appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer criticized this buddying up of the federal government with automakers, calling it the most egregious trampling of state’s rights since Gen. Sherman marched through Georgia during the Civil War. “They are treating us like a hostile country,” he said. “They are patently and aggressively anti-environmental.”

Automakers plan to use the same argument they are using against the “zero emissions” mandate to challenge California’s other pathbreaking legislation on car emissions.

Last year, on July 22, California enacted legislation that for the first time in any state called for reducing the amount of greenhouse gases coming from the tailpipes of all passenger vehicles sold in the state, even the beloved sports utility vehicles.

California Gov. Gray Davis touted this legislation, A.B. 1493, as the first to enlist American drivers in the cause of reducing the harmful effects of global warming. Davis said in an interview that he had hoped Washington would take the lead in tackling global warming, “but the worst thing we could do in California is to do nothing.”

Environmental groups claim the passing of this legislation after a bitter fight was a clear victory for them over the auto and oil industries. The new California law requires state air regulators to start a program by 2009 that would cut emissions from vehicles. California accounts for 13 percent of the nation’s auto market.

California’s cutting-edge law on reducing emissions has served as goad to bipartisan congressional legislation that would force Detroit automakers and other industries nationwide to take steps to avert further global warming.

The “cap and trade” bill proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., early this year would set an overall national limit on the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It would also set up a mandatory trading system in which companies that fail to meet their reduction goals could buy credits from those that do. The McCain-Lieberman bill calls for cutting emissions to 2000 levels by 2010 and to 1990 levels by 2016.

In reaction to this bipartisan initiative, the White House immediately declared that the government must continue to study the issue before enacting any policies around it, reminding lawmakers the administration is on record as opposing any mandatory approaches to curbing greenhouse gas emissions, recommending voluntary systems instead.

Regarding the federal intervention on behalf of the state’s carmakers, California environmentalists notice the same ideological discrepancy the state’s attorney general touched on.

“The Bush administration talks until they’re blue in the face about respecting state authority on environmental issues,” said Drew Caputo, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “When the question is snowmobiles in Yellowstone or drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the federal government argues they’re supporting what locals want. In California, however, it’s the opposite. Basically their position is, ‘We respect state authority, but only when the state agrees with the oil industry.’ ”

On the matter of renewing oil-drilling leases in coastal waters, the Bush administration’s policy in California is in sharp contrast to its policy in Florida, where the president’s brother is governor, according to Salon.com’s technology writer Katharine Mieszkowski. “Bush has pledged $235 million to buy out oil leases in the coastal waters of Gov. Jeb Bush’s state,” she said. “But Bush owes nothing to California, a state that not only went to Gore in 2000, but even eschewed the so-called Bush effect that dominated the 2002 elections in other states, electing Democrats to the state’s highest offices from governor to treasurer.”

Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, told reporters: “Bush is truly leading one of the greatest assaults on environmental laws this country has ever seen.” Pointing to the report released in late January by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Jackson said federal laws are weakening her state’s landmark environmental protections with “a speed and recklessness that is unprecedented.”

These retrenchments also come at a time when California’s budget deficit is as much as $34.6 billion, making it harder to fight back.

“California has been the leader in developing environmental solutions and testing them out,” the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope told NCR. Catalytic converters, hybrid cars, biologically reclaimed wastewater, reliable wind-turbines, and closed loop toxic waste treatment were all developed by companies striving to meet California’s environmental standards. By trying to prevent California from advancing environmental quality, the administration is trying to ensure there is no market and no incentive for companies and engineers to continue to make progress and innovate.”

Pope pointed out that Bush first abandoned the federal effort to develop better solutions. Then, “fearing that if California demonstrates to America how much better we could do, Americans in other states will demand the same progress, the administration wants to take from the people of California the right to protect themselves and their children.”

The Bush administration defends its actions overall as good public policy and an effort to develop a better balance between conservation and reality-based economics.

“What’s missing in this outcry from some environmental groups,” James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told NCR, “is recognition of the wide consensus around the country demanding policies that are sustainable and responsible but also people-centered as well as protective of resources and wildlife. We can, for example, have clean air without driving electricity rates through the roof, making it hard for people to heat and light their homes. We have to look at the whole picture, and then make policy that is effective.”

Many Californians disagree that these policies are environmentally benign, saying that President Bush has sold out the national trust.

Under the radar

“What’s insidious about this attack on California’s environmental laws,” Franciscan Br. Keith Warren, member of the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation, told NCR, “is that it’s under the radar. All the federal agencies have been captured and are run by former captains of industry. In California, we’re incredulous, outraged. We feel betrayed. It’s far worse than we expected.”

Warren, an expert on forestry practices and conservation, cited Bush’s “Healthy Forests Initiative,” an-nounced in August 2002, after a summer of devastating fires in the drought-stricken West. This general policy statement cleared the way for the shifts in forestry management taking place in California. Bush is allowing more commercial logging nationwide in order to prevent fires, claiming that a byproduct of logging is the clearing of brush. The initiative also calls on curtailing the public input into forestry decisions that has characterized most national forest plans in the last four decades.

Part of the plan proposed for California’s national forests even involves cutting on 180,000 acres in Lassen and Plumas National Forests in Northern California to “scientifically research” the effects of logging on the famous spotted owl, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project, a forest conservationist group, told NCR: “The feds can use this nifty approach to justify anything. They can cut trees in Yellowstone to see what effect it has on the grizzly bears, or devastate Alaska to see what happens to the bald eagles.”

“The science used to justify the forestry policy changes would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic,” said Warren. “It’s all about extraction and exploitation, not about maintaining healthy ecosystems. Chainsaws and bulldozers are not appropriate in a national monument. It’s a sellout, not to mention a betrayal of campaign promises.”

Warren pointed out that environmental progress happens in fits and starts necessarily. “Under Clinton we were getting there step by step,” he said. “But now this administration has turned its back on sound science and the public good in order to plunder and exploit. It’s hard for me to believe the democratic process matters anymore when business is always favored over sound ecological science and the public interest.”

“To undermine the good moral standards that support California’s environmental safeguards and the American people’s desire to save their natural treasures is plain wrong,” Episcopal priest Sally Bingham, environment minister at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and a registered Republican, told NCR. “I heard that Karl Rove told Bush he will never get the environmental vote, no matter what he does. And California failed to support him in the election, so this is our reward.”

Bingham said that Grace Cathedral had its largest gathering ever during the Jan. 18 mass protest against the planned war on Iraq. “Environmentalists came to the cathedral to demonstrate against the proposed war. It showed me how much the people in the pews are standing up to be counted. It was the faith community that moved the civil rights movement forward, and I think the same will happen with environmental matters in California and beyond. These trees, beaches and wetlands can never be replaced. We people of faith are meant to be caretakers, not despoilers.”

David Brower, a native Californian and former director of the Sierra Club, is famous for saying, “We do not inherit the earth from our fathers. We’re borrowing it from our children.” The words are chiseled into stone at the National Aquarium in Washington. Brower also went on to say, according to California’s Lockyer in a guest editorial, “We’re not just borrowing from our children, we’re stealing from them -- and it’s not even considered a crime.”

About Bush versus California’s environmental laws and regulations, Lockyer pledged to do “whatever I can to prevent that kind of theft from occurring.”

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

Related Web Sites

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

California Forestry Association

California Zero Emission Vehicle Program

John Muir Project

Natural Resources Defense Council

Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation

Sierra Club

U.S. Forest Service

Sequoia National Forest/Giant Sequoia National Monument

White House Council on Environmental Quality

Wilderness Society

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003