The Charade of the Visigoths

The official version of last year's political battles over the environment, due to be endlessly recycled through Campaign '96, goes something like this: As the Republican Visigoths swept into control of the 104th Congress in 1995, trembling greens foresaw that no old-growth tree or endangered species would be spared. The Cuyahoga River would once again burst into flames.

The Republican threats were terrible to be-hold. They proposed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. They vowed to establish a commission to shut down several national parks; to relax standards on the production and disposal of toxic waste; to turn over enforcement of clean water and air standards to the states. They uttered fearsome threats against the Endangered Species Act. They boasted of plans to double the amount of logging on national forests.

Against this promised onslaught, so the story goes, the Clinton administration, moderate Republicans, and the national environmental groups formed a thin green line, and prepared to fight to the death. But lo! When the dust of battle settled with the year-end recess, the line had held and the dark knights of Republican extremism had been cut down by principled defiance.

This mythic struggle has been zealously peddled in any number of publications. The Washington Post's Tom Kenworthy evoked "a green roadblock." Last November the national environmental organizations took out costly full-page ads in the press, chorusing "Thank-You, Mr. President, For Defending the Environ-ment." In The Nation and The Progressive, David Helvarg promoted the same line as Kenworthy: that Republicans had been beaten back by aggressive national green groups and an administration--particularly Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt--attentive once more to green concerns.

American politics thrives on these simple legends of virtue combating vice. The sadder truth--that mainstream American politics is a story of collusion at the behest of the same corporate dollar--is mostly too painful for polite consumption, though at the popular level it is taken for granted. For an analogy to what has really gone on in the environmental sector, consider the great budget battle. The Republicans demanded a balanced budget by 2002. Clinton drew a line in the sand, which on close analysis spelled acceptance of all essential Republican demands with some minor variations in scheduling.

So, as regards the environment, the Republican ultras did not carry all before them. They didn't need to. Clinton and the Democrats had already done most of the damage themselves.

While environmental groups were releasing mass mailings calling for cash contributions to help beat back GOP plans to sell off America's public lands, the Clinton crowd was contemplating precisely such a move to help balance the budget. Mike Dombeck, director of the Bureau of Land Management, suggested in a memo to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that billions could be raised by selling off 150 million acres of federal lands to the states or to commercial interests.

Clinton eagerly signed one of the very first bills passed by the Republican-dominated Congress, addressing the "unfunded mandates," with states rebelling against costs imposed on them by federal regulations. This surrender, in the early spring of '95, handed the Republicans the central concession pressed by corporations and their neoliberal accomplices in the think tanks: "Market forces," not government regulations, should govern the handling of environmental issues. This was the moment when the national environmental organizations should have withdrawn all support from the Clinton administration, since the President's signature on the unfunded mandates bill signaled many of the surrenders that were to come.

Take drinking water. Municipalities, corporations, and utilities had argued that current federal standards were too stringent, requiring costly plants and burdensome regulatory oversight. The Clinton administration duly supported changes in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Now increased levels of lead, radon, and arsenic will be allowed to enter the nation's water supplies for the first time since the Ford administration, when the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed.

Nowhere has there been more tendentious journalism than on the issue of old-growth logging. Last fall reporters such as Tim Egan of the New York Times suddenly discovered a mysterious "loophole" in a rider to the Budget Rescissions Act; it mandated 4.5 billion board feet of salvage logging in the national forests and made those timber sales immune to all courtroom challenges.

The "loophole" stories took the line that Clinton & Co. had been duped into signing the legislation by timber companies like Weyer-haeuser and men such as Mark Rey, formerly an industry lobbyist and now chief of staff for the Senate Interior Committee. Team Clinton also supposedly did not realize that the law would permit logging in ancient forest groves to be protected under Clinton's Option 9 Forest Plan for Northwest Forests. As 1,000-year-old Douglas Firs began to fall, the duped-by-loophole fiction grew apace.

But the idea that wool was pulled over the Clinton administration's eyes is preposterous. Its point man on these matters is Jim Lyons, the assistant secretary of agriculture who oversees the Forest Service, and previously the very savvy chief of staff for the House Agriculture Commit-tee. There he personally drafted similar laws under the direction of such pillagers of nature as the former Speaker of the House, Tom Foley.

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