The Fake Fight on Endangered Species
The art of betraying binding commitments in politics is to swear that never will you adopt a particular course of action, while at the same time inching along that same line by prudent and tactful degrees. It's the way Woodrow Wilson got America into World War I; it's the way FDR got America into World War II; and it's the way Bill Clinton is gutting the Endangered Species Act.
This act, passed in 1973 in the reign of good King Richard Nixon, friend to all living things, was one of the single most important pieces of environmental legislation in the nation's history. Now watch it die. If you want an analogy, look at what Clinton did to welfare. First he said welfare merited reform, but he wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Then he said he would resist to the death unconscionable Republican plans to do away with welfare. Then, finally, he signed on to legislation--labeled an honorable compromise satisfactory to moderate opinion--throwing out the babies, the single mothers, and most of the bathwater with enthusiastic support from most of the Democrats and every woman senator, except for Carole Moseley-Braun who, it turns out, may also be the only member of Congress to offer a bill actually strengthening rather than destroying the present Endangered Species Act.
In September of this year Alaskan congressman Don Young, head of the House Resources Committee, and California Republican Richard Pombo--a rancher--introduced a bill that would straightforwardly dismantle the Endangered Species Act. It would allow the secretaries of the interior and commerce departments full license to permit the extinguishing of species. It also promises enormous handouts to any corporation pleading that existing legislation on preserving species has cost it money.
This "extreme" bill has been the first part of an elaborate bait and switch. The second part was another bill introduced by Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, a leader of the so-called moderate Republican revolt in the House. His is a lightly greenwashed version of the bill put forward by Young and Pombo. Instead of the cabinet members acting as a two-person God Squad decreeing extinctions without appeal, it sets up an advisory panel, handpicked by the secretaries, which would do cost-benefit analysis on whether a species was worth saving or not.
Thus we have the traditional fake battle so necessary to liberal illusions and agendas. The big national groups are already raising money by the sackload with impassioned emergency appeals to "save" the Endangered Species Act. Most prominent here is an organization called Defenders of Wildlife, which vows in its fundraising literature that it "will be the last line of defense for America's endangered species." Needless to say, Defenders of Wildlife was among the very first to sign onto the Gilchrest bill, swiftly followed by other big groups like the National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Wilderness Society.
The Gilchrest bill is carefully styled to appeal precisely to the neoliberal tastes of Defenders of Wildlife and Bill Clinton. Indeed, Clinton has called Defenders his favorite environmental group, citing its promotion of free-market environmentalism. Just before Labor Day Clinton hunkered down for a strategy talk with Defenders officials in the course of his golfing trip to Yellowstone National Park. Clinton emerged from the meeting saying that the "corner had been turned on the Endangered Species Act. There will be changes, but the Act will be saved."
Soon after this conclave, Defenders announced its support for the Gilchrest bill, which offers all important "market incentives" to private landowners to protect nature. Under its terms, the Feds would either buy conservation easements on private lands, or would pay private owners compensation against financial losses incurred during the protection of a species. All this has very little to do with small landowners and everything to do with big corporate outfits such as timber and mining companies and coastal developers who will be promised lavish payoffs for not destroying nature.
Because the environmentalists were unable to convince any Democrats in the House to introduce a bill strengthening or even maintaining the existing Endangered Species Act, the Gilchrest Bill has now become the "environmentalist" bill. Sensing an opportunity to crush the Endangered Species Act with one hand and while waving the peacemaker's with the other, Newt Gingrich recently entered the fray. After several meetings with sociobiologists such as Harvard's E.O. Wilson, who no doubt sees the Endangered Species Act as an impediment to proper Darwinian combat, Gingrich says he's prepared to offer a fusion bill melding the two sides. This bill is likely to be carried through the House by Representative James Saxton of New Jersey early next year.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Montana Democrat Max Baucus has announced his intention to introduce a bill that will do for the Senate what the Gingrich bill will do in the House. This disastrous bill also stands a good chance of garnering an endorsement from the D.C. greens, since Max Baucus's former chief of staff, Rodger Schlickeisen, now serves as president of Defenders of Wildlife.
But behind this legislative bait and switch--which augers easy passage of the "Gingrich compromise"--is another bait and switch already accomplished by Clinton and Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. This is the old Washington ploy of making a huge legislative uproar over something that has already happened. With all eyes fixed on the mighty fight to the death over the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton administration has already hollowed out the Act by administrative decrees. Within months of taking office Clinton and Babbitt offered up the blue-gray gnatcatcher to California developers under the famous win-win compromise pioneered by California Governor Pete Wilson's environmental bureaucrats.
This win-win approach decreed that in a face-off between coastal developers building condos on endangered gnatcatcher territory, the builders would get the housing sites and the golf courses and the gnatcatcher would get a few acres of cliff face politely called "habitat" and that--at least for the gnatcatcher--would be that. Similarly, despite many a verbal flourish about conservation, Clinton's Option 9 plan for the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest allows so much logging to take place that even the government's own scientists now say that the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet cannot be saved from extinction. Another victim of the win-win compromise is the gray wolf, which the Clinton administration recently reintroduced to the Northern Rockies as "a non-essential, experimental population," meaning that such wolves can be shot on sight by any rancher claiming that his livestock is in danger.
Thus, by such administrative fiat, the gnatcatcher, spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and gray wolf are already on the road to doom, even though the present Endangered Species Act is still in force.
So much for bait and switch. But we are also seeing the wholesale hostile takeover of such resistance as remains in the environmental community. Led by former Indiana congressman Jim Jontz, a coalition of grassroots groups waging an effective guerrilla campaign against the gutting of the Endangered Species Act has now been bought up by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a foundation that gets its dough from Sun Oil and Oryx Energy and which gives out nearly $20 million a year in environmental grants.
The Pew people offered $1.5 million to the big national groups that had been sponsoring this grassroots effort. But the money came with an ominous rider, namely that the Jontz team be dumped and replaced by a Democratic Party insider called Phil Clapp, a former aide to Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado, who now holds a position in the Clinton administration. (Connoisseurs of this particular maneuver will remember in the ancient forest battle how Pew hired another Democratic Party hack, Bob Chlopak, to perform the same function.) Clapp's first act has been to hire Democratic political organizers to work in the state of Iowa. Why? Because this is where Republican candidates will be gathering for the presidential caucus. And it's where Clapp and his accomplices can tout Clinton's unflinching defense of endangered species.
Pew's money is not designed to buy survival of the present Endangered Species Act, but to help elect Bill Clinton to a second term by undercutting any resistance to a "moderate solution" to the Endangered Species Act problem. Thus Clinton will be able to boast in his '96 campaign that he did indeed reach an honorable compromise and save the best bits of the Endangered Species Act.
So we see a win-win solution for all the political players involved. With the South lost to the Republicans, Clinton's only hope is the West, and his strategists are convinced there are millions of votes to be won in New Westerners--urbanites driving 4-wheelers--content with a president trumpeting his prudent management of natural resources.
When the compromise bill goes through, the big green groups--having already raised millions supposedly fighting to save the Act--will then raise millions more by claiming victory. Because a fiction still known as the Endangered Species Act will be around, the pro-industry Wise Use Movement will still be able to raise money to fight it. As for the corporations: If they log, mine, or build on public lands they will still receive billions in taxpayer subsidies and if they choose not to log, mine, or build on their own properties they can claim ecological harm or a "takings" and get millions more in compensation.
How bad is this saga? So bad that some DC environmental lobbyists are openly praising Newt Gingrich, former Sierra Club conservation chair and lover of zoos, for coming to the aid of the so-called moderate solution.
There you have it. A win-win solution for everyone except the spotted owl, gray wolf, grizzly, salmon and all those other species soon to disappear from the face of the Earth or be preserved in test tubes in some genetic zoo.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.