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.
Revealingly, in his lengthy remarks in Yellowstone, Clinton never mentioned the reason why a mine was slated for federal lands so close to Yellowstone: the archaic 1872 Mining Law, which gives away public land for as little as $2.50 an acre. The federal government received less than $25,000 for handing over the land containing the Noranda mine; yet, it now plans to pay the company $68 million to buy those very same lands back. There are more than 16,000 other mining claims in the Yellowstone ecosystem alone, similar deals for all these equally destructive mines would bankrupt the treasury.
§ Clinton's signing of the Food Quality Protection Act was even more conclusively disastrous. With the stroke of a pen, Clinton did to public health and environmental protection laws what the welfare bill did to the New Deal: it repealed its philosophical assumption in one key area of legislation. Since 1958 the so-called Delaney Clause of the Food and Drug Act had imposed an absolute ban on carcinogens in processed food, a law the food and chemical companies have been trying to overthrow ever since. Now the deed has been done and rationalized (like the welfare bill) in the name of children. The regulatory prohibition against carcinogens will be replaced by cost benefit analyses and risk assessments, meaning that panels of food industry scientists will decide how many people should die of cancer each year to protect the all-important corporate bottom line.
"This bill is the big lie," said Peter Montague of the Annapolis-based Environmental Research Foundation. "The administration, working with Monsanto and Dow, has adopted the corporate friendly approach of pollution control and cancer management."
§ The Beverly Hills bash had a subtext that mostly eluded a press corps entranced by the guest list and the entertainment. The hosts of the affair, media moguls Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, are involved in a huge real estate deal in Los Angeles, known as the Playa Vista development. Their plan is to build a giant studio for their new company, Dreamworks. The development, unfortunately, will destroy the Ballona wetlands, one of the largest coastal marshes in southern California and a critical staging area for migratory birds. The project needs federal approval before construction can begin.
Geffen and Spielberg have raised nearly $8 million for the Clinton-Gore campaign and the Democratic Party in the last year. Thus it's probably not surprising that in the past six months, Vice President Gore has been making calls to key Sierra Club members and other green activists in Los Angeles urging them to support the Playa Vista development as environmentally friendly.
§ More starpower was on hand at Clinton's stop in Arizona. It was Robert Redford who introduced Clinton on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Redford called the President's impending proclamation declaring Escalante Canyon 150 miles northeast in Utah a National Monument "important almost to a moral degree, almost to a spiritual degree."
As the president preened before the cameras, some environmentalists pinched themselves in astonishment. Their position (for which Redford had lobbied fiercely in Congress last spring) had long been that no less than 5.7 million acres of Utah should be designated as a national wilderness or national park--categories that afford more environmental protection than national monument status. The deal gave up more than the coal mining companies and ranchers had dared hope: Their final fallback position, introduced in Congress by Utah conservative Rep. James Hansen, would have designated up to 2 million acres as wilderness. In the end, Clinton used his executive powers to place 1.7 million acres land in the nebulous category of a national monument. The fate of the remaining 4 million acres remains in the hands of Congress.
But exactly how this designation protects the Escalante Canyon is unclear. As Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt confessed later that afternoon, the label of "national monument" (unlike park or wilderness status) still allows cattle grazing, off-road vehicle use, hunting, and kindred activities. The designation was "mainly a name thing," he said. When pressed, Babbitt also admitted that nothing in the proclamation prevented the coal mining companies from pressing forward with their claims within the national monument area, although he said he hoped they would be willing to work a Noranda-type deal elsewhere on public lands in Utah.
Good luck. The largest coal claim in southern Utah is owned by the Andalex Company, a Dutch consortium. Andalex's coal reserves have an estimated value of nearly a trillion dollars. Babbitt conceded this might seem like a very hefty sum, but he was confident that the company could get land of equivalent value elsewhere in the state: "There's a lot of federal land in Utah and there are a lot of minerals on those lands." A trillion dollars worth? At that rate a Dutch company could end up owning nearly half the federal land in the Beehive State.
Some environmentalists have rationalized the proclamation by saying Clinton may come back in his second term and shift the designation from national monument to wilderness or park and also include the missing 4 million acres. Babbitt promptly dashed those hopes by telling reporters that "this won't happen for generations."
§ Clinton's trip down Interstate 5 in Washington completed the greenwash tour. Every time Clinton comes to Portland he promises to save the old-growth forests, but more ancient trees always fall in his wake. Usually, a Clinton visit prompts at least a token protest from the timber industry. This time the timber companies were ecstatic over the deal they had just cut with the administration.
In exchange for giving back their contracts to log ancient forests in nesting habitat of the marbled murrelet, the timber industry was given the rights to cut an equivalent amount of volume from less controversial tracts of forest. These sales had been halted by a court injunction. As a result, the companies (some of which had been investigated for timber fraud) get the logs they want without pesky contentions over the murrelet, and with the support of the White House. The timber will still be old growth, but because it will be on less productive sites it will require perhaps twice as many acres of forest to be clearcut to get the "equivalent volume" promised the timber companies.
Clinton claimed to be saving the old-growth trees from the chainsaws, but he failed to mention the reason for their plight: a bill he signed into law last July called the salvage logging rider, which doomed old-growth on the national forests and exempted the timber companies from compliance with federal environmental laws. This sleight of hand prompted Michael Donnelly, an environmentalist from Salem, Oregon, to proclaim at the Portland rally, "Clinton saved the old growth the way Reagan balanced the budget."
§ As exultant as the timber companies in Oregon is Charles Hurwitz, owner of the Headwaters Grove in Northern California. The administration is now prepared to settle pending claims against him for the looting of the United Savings Association of Texas. In exchange, Hurwitz would turn over the core of the Headwaters grove and a small buffer area, probably no more than 5,200 acres. The remaining 55,000 acres of magnificently handsome 1,000-year-old redwoods will be shredded to make lawn furniture.
In early September, the speculator holed up in a San Francisco office building with Senator Dianne Feinstein and Deputy Interior Security John Garamendi, who assured him that a favorable deal would go forward. Feinstein emerged from the meeting to denounce a demonstration against Hurwitz scheduled to take place in the mill town of Carlotta the next day. "Threats and intimidation and that kind of thing [aren't] going to solve this problem," she declared.
Nearly 8,000 people ignored her advice and showed up to demand that all 60,000 acres of the Headwaters forest complex be taken into public ownership; more than 1,000 people were arrested, including singers Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley and former Congressman Dan Hamburg.
After the rally, Hurwitz upped the ante. He summoned Garamendi to a meeting in Washington, D.C., where the corporate raider said that if the administration didn't come forward with an even better deal in a week, he was going to order the cutting of the ancient redwoods. "This is America," Hurwitz boasted. "We paid for this forest. We paid taxes on it. The government needs to pay us not to log them." The government folded. Hurwitz is to receive $380 million in cash and federal properties in exchange for turning over to the federal government only 4,200 acres of the 66,000 acre Headwaters forests. Moreover, the Clinton administration agreed to give Hurwitz's company an exemption from the Endangered Species Act so that the remaining stands can be clearcut with legal impunity. The company is now logging in the remaining stands of old growth redwoods.
To be fair, Clinton has never made a strenuous effort to offer himself as the heir to John Muir. The president's favorite view of nature is whatever sight can be glimpsed through the golden arches of his favorite fast food chain. Chalk these deals up to Al Gore, the Teflon veep and supposedly nature's friend. So far, he's led a charmed life. In whistle-stop politics, the press bus rarely returns to the scene of the crime.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter