Freedom's Failure: Aliens Abduct Newt!

           The science-fiction movie Independence Day raked in more than $100 million in its first week, which is three times the amount the federal government spends each year on wilderness protection. The loosely conceived plot features extraterrestrials hopscotching from planet to planet across the galaxy, devouring all natural resources and extinguishing all life forms in their path.

           The filmmakers could have used this scenario to impart a parable about corporate devastation across our planet, but instead the environment becomes a text with which to promulgate an appeal for big-time missile defense. Somewhere along the line, Rupert Murdoch (this was a Fox film) must have dropped Bob Dole's speeches about Star Wars on the producer's desk. And, in fact, the aliens' 53-mile wide spaceship is finally destroyed by a hydrogen bomb planted on it. The President, a hero of the Gulf War played blandly by Bill Pullman, congratulates the bombardiers in the Nevada desert as radioactive chunks of alien ship rain down on the earth.

           On July 4, President Bill Clinton celebrated Independence Day by launching a young bald eagle into the wilds of suburban Maryland. Clinton lofted the bird with cries of "beautiful, fabulous." Then, with a final flourish, Clinton exclaimed that preservation of the environment was going to be a top priority for the Democrats in the coming campaign season. The bird, named Freedom, wobbled into the sky and was immediately assailed by two ospreys, which forced it down into the waters of the Patuxent River. Freedom had to be rescued by the Coast Guard and returned to captivity. These untoward events occurred after the press corps had seized its photo op.

           Clinton has finally listened to all the pollsters, most notably his in-house political numbers guru, Dick Morris, all of whom have been telling him that the environment is a big selling issue with the voters. They want it protected and are even willing to pay more taxes to see it done.

           Even as the President cried "beautiful" and vowed eternal fealty at nature's altar, he was giving the go-ahead to one of the most outrageous spasms of pillage currently available for scrutiny in the United States: The devastation of Mount Graham.

           This 11,000-foot mountain in southern Arizona, sacred to the San Carlos Apaches, is to be the site of deep-space telescopes, scientific labs, roads, and living quarters. A federal appeals court had halted the project, ruling that it violated both the Endangered Species Act and religious rights of the Apaches. But Clinton signed a bill in June which contained a rider overturning the injunction. The Forest Service and Interior Department are now supervising renewed logging on the mountain's slopes, thus finishing off not only the trees on this rare sky island habitat in the desert, but also an endangered species in the form of the Mount Graham red squirrel. The Clinton administration informed the court that it would begin logging the site on July 4. The telescopes are to be run by the University of Arizona and the Vatican. The Vatican astronomer in charge of the project told the reliable French newspaper Le Monde that he intends to look "for potential converts" in outer space and that the Apaches' opposition to the project was part of "a Jewish conspiracy." He based this theory on the mistaken notion that the man funding the Apaches' resistance was a Jew. He's not. He's a jack Mormon.

           The strategy urged by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has worked. Although Clinton's substantive performance has remained vile, the environmental groups have been enchanted by his hot green talk. Last month, the Sierra Club's political committee voted unanimously to endorse Clinton for reelection.

           Over on the Republican side, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been reading the same polling numbers, and striving to satisfy the same crucial constituencies. His fate has been somewhat different.

           On June 4, the Washington Times ran a long op-ed piece denouncing Gingrich as a dolphin-loving green who was betraying all the most cherished principles of the "Gingrich Revolution" and of the Contract with America. Alluding to a recent appearance by the speaker on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the article noted that "while [Gingrich] exhibited knowledge about animals, like the fact that an x-ray of a legless lizard would reveal vestigial limbs, his approach to environmental policy has been less well-informed and could cost his conservative colleagues dearly."

           The article then took an x-ray of Gingrich's ideological propensities and revealed vestigial traces of the radicalism he exhibited when a student at Tulane and as conservation chairman of a Sierra Club chapter. It concluded with a suggestion that Gingrich "back off" his present bid to reclaim for his party the environmental mantle of Teddy Roosevelt.

           The authors of this menacing tract were Rob Gordon and James Streeter of the deceptively named National Wilderness Institute. This group is a vehemently anti-environmental "Wise Use" body whose board of directors includes House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and the Attila of Idaho, Senator Larry Craig. Also lodged on the board is Rep. Richard Pombo of California, who has drafted legislation finishing off the Endangered Species Act. Gingrich personally deep-sixed Pombo's bill, correctly calculating that it would be a huge vote-loser in November.  

           The Washington Times article was therefore a clear signal from the young colonels of the Gingrich Revolution that they regard him as a sellout, and he risks being toppled and replaced by the burly Dick Armey.

           By Independence Day, the atmosphere had gotten even more acrid. This was the week of the Wise Use movement's "Fly In for Freedom," when ranchers, loggers, and developers make their annual lobbying pilgrimage to D.C. Babylon. Some Republican lawmakers were even accusing Newt of being seduced by Hollywood celebrities. California Republican Duke Cunningham--the man who announced on the floor of the House that environmentalism was part of the "homosexual and communist agenda"--told a group of Wise Use leaders that Newt had promised actor Pierce ("007") Brosnan that he would personally keep the dolphin death bill from being voted on in the House.

           All this prompted a furious Myron Edell, lobbyist of the right-wing Frontiers of Freedom Institute, an outfit set up by former Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop, to bellow: "I think Republicans are starting to realize that the chief obstacle to getting any real environmental reform is their speaker. The freshmen Republicans are very loyal to him, but his green proclivities are damaging to their reelection chances." Edell's organization has recently published two "white papers" excoriating Newt's environmental record.

           Meanwhile, Chuck Cushman, the Mussolini of the Wise Use crowd, says that Gingrich has given 20 liberal Republican congressmen from the East Coast veto power over all environmental legislation. Cushman was referring to Newt's environmental task force, a group of Republican congressmen working to shape a new platform on green issues. "What Gingrich has done to satisfy this rump group is to take power from traditional communities and neutralize the will of the rest of the party. If he keeps it up he'll be running for minority leader."

           So who really wins from these dances of ideological opportunism? Across the West, the corporate predators are cutting the Republican ultras adrift. The timber companies and agribusiness giants of eastern Oregon have prodded a former Republican, Greg Walden, to launch a third party challenge against incumbent Wes Cooley, the Wise Use movement's most vocal champion in the House. Last year, Cooley gained some national notoriety when he suggested that perhaps Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas should be jailed for not logging enough timber off the national forests.

           Cooley has been under fire recently for allegations that (like his political idol, Ronald Reagan) he lied about his military service, claiming he was part of a special operations assassination squad in Korea, when in fact he never left California. Cooley is convinced that Gingrich is behind both his bad press and the derailing of his plans to dismantle the Endangered Species Act. "Let's cut the bullshit," Cooley exclaimed during a July meeting of Wise Use leaders and Republican members of congress from the Western states. "The main problem here is Gingrich. He's a damn limousine liberal."

           In Idaho, Helen Chenoweth, the Boadicia of the backwoods, is being spurned by the big corporations in her own state--Boise/Cascade, Potlatch, FMC Gold, and Hewlett-Packard, the owners of the largest (and most abused) grazing concession in Idaho. They regard Chenoweth as an embarrassment and are ready to sit down with the corporate green groups and cut a deal.

           The recently unveiled plan to reintroduce grizzlies into central Idaho is a model for what is now happening nationwide. Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to restore bears to the Idaho wilderness and ensure that their habitat is protected from destructive logging and mining. Chenoweth loudly denounced the proposal, saying "the only thing bears are good for is killing wolves." But the plan was all worked out behind Chenoweth's back, in secret meetings between the timber and mining companies, the Clinton administration, and two renegade green groups, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation.

           Under this arrangement, grizzly bears will be captured in Canada and transplanted in the wildlands of Idaho's Salmon River country. But there's a catch. The bears will have no legal protection. Instead, the timber and mining companies will be given exemptions from the Endangered Species Act allowing the bears' habitat to be logged off or mined relentlessly. Moreover, if a rancher spots a bear on his grazing allotment, he is permitted to shoot the bear at will.  

           Environmental groups, such as the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, that have correctly denounced this proposal as a sellout of the bear have been ridiculed as radicals by their own supposed colleagues at the National Wildlife Federation. Chenoweth and the other Republican ultras have been left in the dust. Clinton, like that president in the movie, charts his praises for the win-win eco-solution, while the corporations continue their uninhibited plunder of the earth.

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