April 27, 2001

Commentary

The First 100 Days and the Environment

by Kevin Doyle

One hundred days into office, President George Bush appears to have yanked his administration out of a reckless crash and burn environmental nose dive. Unfortunately, his sputtering conservation recovery seems to be held aloft mainly by a desperate White House spin machine. Indeed, the president's environmental offensive was hardly more than a series of decisions not to move backward — upholding safeguards for wetlands and against lead pollution made by the previous administration and agreeing to sign an international treaty seeking to phase out a dozen highly toxic chemicals that have been banned in the United States for years.

It is clear the president's environmental record thus far flunks the progress test. Mainstream America expects the occupant of the Oval Office to be an advocate for the nation's land, air, water and wildlife. Not doing harm is not good enough.

On the environment, President Bush has also flunked the standard he set for himself of unifying the nation — unless one views accolades from the oil, coal and timbering industries as representative of a national consensus.

Deeply troubling, too, is the administration's emerging preference to cut the public out of the decision making loop. Interior Secretary Gale Norton wants enforcement of successful citizen court actions to protect imperiled wildlife under the Endangered Species Act to be nullified. The energy task force the president convened to deal with what he terms a national crisis has held all its deliberation behind closed doors.

Instead of open decisions openly arrived at, representing a balanced agenda of environmental progress to unite the nation, President Bush's first 100 days have been marked by bailing out on a campaign pledge to restrict carbon emissions from power plants, walking away from the Kyoto climate change treaty, calling for over $2 billion in budget cuts for environmental and natural resource spending, considering a rollback on the roadless policy in national forests, and targeting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling.

Pursuing those types of policies for another 1,361 days is simply not politically feasible.

And Mr. Bush may —just may— be getting the message.

The White House is muting its enthusiasm to replace the Arctic Refuge's wilderness with oil rigs. The views of an evident majority in Congress and a clear majority of the American people that the refuge is too wild to waste, especially for no more than nine months of oil supply, appear to have penetrated the energy task force's closed meetings. Stronger rules for arsenic in drinking water are promised. Stunned by both the domestic and international reaction to its policy of denial and disarray on climate change, the administration says it is working on plans to address global warming.

It remains as true after the first 100 days as it was before them that President Bush will be greeted by a welcoming hand when he supports policies that benefit wildlife, wild places and the global environment—just as he will be opposed when he does not.

The opportunity to unite the nation behind environmental progress is his. He could make a fresh start next month if his energy task force recommendations place a solid emphasis on conservation, efficiency and renewables. If the White House provide leadership, there is little doubt Congress is ready to endorse channeling a reliable source of conservation funding directly to the states for wildlife and outdoor recreation, using revenue already generated from off-shore drilling leases. The president's chief trade negotiator has taken an important positive first step in confirming that environmental reviews will be part of all future international trade deals. This year's budget process could be a landmark in reigning in the environmentally destructive policies of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and reorienting them to environment stewardship as exemplified by the Everglades restoration project.

The environment deserves an advocate in the White House. The president, any president, deserves better than a prejudged, knee-jerk reaction to his policies. If Mr. Bush uses the respite that the traditional reflection on the first 100 days offers, we can have the one and avoid the other.

Kevin Doyle is the director of the National Wildlife Federation's Southwest Natural Resource Center in San Diego.

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