The Great Green Whistlestop Tour

          It's been two months now since a vacationing Bill Clinton visited Yellowstone to affirm his administration's commitment to nature. It was the beginning of a furious gallop across the country in which every stop featured the announcement that a menaced ecosystem had been saved and that with Bill Clinton as president, America would stay forever green. At every stop, the unseemly details of the president's enviro-deals were scanted.

          In Yellowstone, be it recalled, Clinton announced that the oldest park in the nation had been saved from predations on its northern border by a Canadian mining company.

          On the eve of the Democratic Convention, Clinton, framed by a clutch of children, signed into law the Food Quality Protection Act. The press hailed the new act as particularly praiseworthy for its successful abolition of the Delaney Clause, portrayed as a piece of archaic legislation from the 1950s, ridiculed by all right-thinking scientists.

          Clinton then made his way to Beverly Hills for a Barbra Streisand-anchored fundraiser, which featured an all-star lineup of Hollywood green celebrities and netted the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign $4 million. The press treated the affair as a society gala, not a political gathering.

          From Hollywood the intrepid president sped on to the north rim of the Grand Canyon to announce that 1.7 million acres of federal lands in Utah would now be designated a National Monument, supposedly saving them from being mined for coal.

          Next Clinton appeared in the Pacific Northwest where, under the alpenglow of Mt. Hood, he declared that he was saving the region's old-growth forests. Timber companies would stop logging in ancient groves inhabited by marbled murrelets, in exchange for permits to log equivalent volumes of timber on other national forest lands in Washington and Oregon.

          When the curtain came down on the finale of Clinton's green road show, Clinton's aides released the tentative terms of a deal protecting the Headwaters Grove in Northern California, the last privately-owned stand of virgin redwoods in America, from destruction. The national press scarcely raised a murmur about the deal, which will pay a huge sum to the owner of the Grove, Charles Hurwitz, a corporate raider who is accused by the government of looting a Texas S&L at a cost of $1.6 billion to taxpayers.

          The common denominator in Clinton's dealmaking is a version of the three-card shuffle: the right to plunder high-profile public assets is being exchanged for the right to loot other, less-visible public assets. The right to pollute or destroy natural areas remains unchallenged. Indeed, it has been consecrated by Clinton executive decrees.

          If this sounds harsh on the president, let us quickly review what's happened in the wake of Clinton's green march to see if it lived up to its advertisements.

          § The salvation of Yellowstone is far from being a done deal. It turns out that the Canadian mining company, Noranda, has veto power over any of the properties on federal lands offered in exchange for its mining claims near Yellowstone. In addition, the settlement has to be finalized by December 31, 1996. If not, Noranda can back out of it. The White House's problem now is that the feds cannot find enough land to Noranda's taste in Montana. If the search is to be extended outside the state, it will require congressional approval, which--given the secrecy and furtive speed with which the deal was hatched--is unlikely to happen soon, if ever. Indeed, Montana's Republican Senator Conrad Burns has already vowed to kill any such maneuver.

          "After reading the Noranda agreement in detail, I don't know the answer to even one of my questions about this deal," says Jim Jensen, director of the Montana Environmental Information Center in Helena, a mining watchdog group. Jensen wants to know whether the toxic waste at the site will be cleaned up, what public lands will be offered for trade, and whether the administration will push Congress to reform the Mining Law of 1872 that created the problem. "But we do know some things. Bill Clinton got his picture taken and the press got duped into writing the greenwash headlines the White House wanted."

          The proposed exchange has also blazed a green light to anyone holding mining claims on the circumference of any other national park: Line up the bulldozers in front of the park gates and wait for the White House to phone with a lucrative buy-out offer. Only days after the presidential ceremony, a Wyoming company filed 175 mining claims along the ecologically pristine Rocky Mountain Front east of Glacier National Park.

          There were other ways to stop Noranda from encroaching on the Yellowstone area. A sober interpretation of existing federal environmental laws (such as the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act) by federal regulators could have simply denied the company permits for the mine. But in the full ecstasy of his Republican conversion, Clinton dropped these powerful weapons, declaring that he wanted to protect Noranda's property rights. In this way Clinton succeeded where Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich had failed: He legitimized the doctrine of regulatory takings, which holds that environmental regulation takes the property of polluters and that corporations therefore must be paid not to violate federal laws.

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