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.

The Clinton administration offered no resistance to implementing that "loophole" provision. The whole loophole affair was a red herring, distracting attention from what the Clinton administration had accepted as an operating principle: salvage logging. Salvaging meant a green light to cut down any tree--even if it imperiled an endangered species--on the grounds that it might be nibbled at by insects, a fire risk, or an inhibition to prudent forest management. The Clinton Forest Plan called this logging strategy "forest health"; it became a way to confiscate the whole logging issue from public scrutiny. Forest health, you see, is a matter for experts. The salvage rider has opened to the chainsaw millions of acres of previously protected forest from Alaska to Mississippi, under cover of legislation that allows no appeal. This was no loophole; along with unfunded mandates, it was a premeditated surrender. We predicted it from the time of Clinton's Forest Summit in April of 1993.

A similar charade has been played out regarding the Endangered Species Act. With the attention of the press fixed on Rep. Don Young's bill, which would crudely destroy the nation's premier wildlife law, more subtle and more successful designs upon the Act have been carried out by the Clinton administration. Interior Secretary Babbitt has been trying to hollow out the Act by regulatory decree for some time.

Signs of this ploy were apparent as early as March of 1993, when Babbitt blessed the "win-win" habitat conservation plan, whereby endangered species such as the California gnatcatcher would coexist on coastal lands with developers. This perish-in-comity strategy has been duplicated across the country, much to the detriment of grizzly bears (a deathly embrace with ranchers), salmon (win-win again, with mining companies and hydro dams), and red-cockaded wood- peckers (which now share their living space with the Potlatch Timber Company in Clinton's home state of Arkansas).

What the win-win ploy didn't destroy was finished off by the "Reinventing Government" scam. Through the darkest days of Reagan and Bush, the Fish and Wildlife Service could be counted on to hold the line against plans by the industrial agencies of the federal government to destroy the habitat of endangered species. Babbitt has now forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to cooperate in half-a-loaf compromises with the agencies it previously regulated. Call it coercive harmony.

As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton's poor record on toxic waste was plain enough, given the dioxin-spewing plant at Jacksonville, not a dozen miles from the state Capitol in Little Rock. With his arrival in the White House came surrender on the WTI incinerator outside Cincinnati. Though the Clinton EPA has banned most domestic sales of the lethal pesticides chlordane and heptachlor, it failed to restrict production of the same. This was a loophole specifically designed to please the Memphis-based Velsicol Chemical Company, which annually exports 2 million pounds of the chemicals to Third World nations. Using NAFTA as an excuse, the EPA has also opened U.S. borders to the unrestricted import of PCBs.

On the international front the Clinton administration has been more of an impediment to environmental protection than either the Bush or Reagan regimes. Despite Al Gore's homilies at Rio, the U.S. has still not signed onto the Convention on Biodiversity, because it opposes the biosafety plank on "genetically manipulated organisms." By way of explanation, consider the huge prospective market for bio-engineered soybeans. Over furious objections from European countries, the U.S. announced in October that it will permit the export of genetically engineered soybeans mixed with natural soybeans. This comes at the request of Monsanto, which developed "transgenic soybeans" to tolerate huge doses of its own Roundup pesticide. The U.S. has taken a similarly aggressive posture in support of overseas distribution of Monsanto's rBGH, a hormone stimulant for the dairy industry.

Acting on behalf of DuPont, the Clinton crowd has plotted a retreat from the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals, such as CFCs and methyl bromide--both produced by DuPont. The U.S. government now proposes a further 30-year delay in the complete phase-out of these chemicals.

One final surrender: All through the Cold War, the ultimate symbol of environmental irresponsibility was nuclear testing. For the first three years of his administration, Clinton stood by a nuclear test ban and announced his support for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. When President Chirac of France launched his nation's test series in the South Pacific, the Clinton administration publicly demurred (while quietly extending infrastructural support).  

In November 1995, Project Rebound was discreetly unveiled. The Department of Energy is to supervise six underground nuclear tests in the deserts of Nevada in 1996. Since we are in the Age of Clinton, these are not called nuclear explosions but rather "hydro-nuclear tests," which are somehow more virtuous and enviro-friendly--just like that win-win deal that doomed the gnatcatcher and salmon. Who needs those Republican ultras?

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