B y J i m N i n t z e l
WHEN OUR HONORABLE Gov. J. Fife Symington III visited Washington a short time ago, he appeared before the conservative Heritage Foundation to share his thoughts on the environment.
In a speech peppered with curious asides about the similarities between religious cults and the environmental movement, Symington expounded on what he calls the "Federalist approach to environmentalism."
"My brand of environmentalism begins with three assumptions," Fife explained. "Conservation is a public good. Government coercion is a political evil. And the two things cannot go together."
It's a theme Symington has harped on lately--the federal government has too many regulations, violating the right of our state to decide its own standards. He even had examples of overzealous government regulation, noting in particular a recent incident in Graham County.
"Solomon Bridge near Safford, Arizona, was washed out, requiring people to drive their kids to schools on dangerous roads," Symington told his audience. "The Fish and Wildlife Service said that they couldn't fix the bridge because of an endangered minnow that lived in the river beneath the bridge. We told the people of Safford to go ahead and fix it anyway. They went into the river and fixed the problem, and nobody has heard a peep from the Fish and Wildlife Service."
Well, no one wants to call the governor a liar. But he certainly left out a few details.
For starters, the problem has not been fixed. Solomon Bridge has never been all that reliable--it has a history of washing away when the Gila River floods. What the folks in Graham County really need is a new bridge.
And they're planning on building one. And you know who's picking up the $2 million tab? Well, you might guess, those independent folks of Graham County, so they can get those children to school safely, right?
Wrong. They've asked the federal government for money to build their new bridge--mean old Uncle Sam himself.
After Solomon Bridge washed out in January 1993, nobody in Graham County did anything to repair it. Eight months later, in August 1993, Graham County officials contacted the Army Corps of Engineers about building a new bridge. They didn't get around to actually submitting their permit until October 1994. And when they did submit their permit, they never mentioned they intended to drive bulldozers into the riverbed and rechannel nearly a half-mile of the river to create a temporary crossing.
In other words, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service never told Graham County officials they couldn't create their temporary crossing. The Graham County folks never even asked if they could, even though they were clearly aware a permit process existed.
"We want to know everything someone is going to do in a waterway and we write one big permit and they can build all of it, some of it or none of it," says an official from the Army Corps of Engineers. "They just can't do more than it. Graham County, I don't think, wants any federal involvement other than money. They don't like having to go through the permit process. It's part of the law and we do not cause trouble for anyone. Our worst problem is that we're overloaded with work and we're not as fast as we want, but we're certainly not ever unfair. If we're made to look a certain way, it's because somebody wants us to look a certain way to cover themselves."
These kinds of distortions are popular these days. Not too long ago, freshman U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told a similar version of the Solomon Bridge story on the Senate floor during a debate on a bill that would roll back environmental regulations.
But while it might not be unusual, Symington's distortion of the truth is disturbing when you consider the essential message behind his vaunted Federalist approach to environmentalism, which boils down to "trust me."
Fife has a simple solution: Scrap all those troubling federal regulations and trust in the "sense all decent people have that with the natural riches given humanity comes a duty to use them wisely. A moral duty, a civic duty, but a quite practical one as well...Obviously we have to manage our land, water, air, timber, minerals and wildlife with care. And just as obviously, that duty is usually best understood and carried out by the people living upon that land."
Well, heck, Fife, why have laws at all if we can just count on decent folks never to do wrong?
It's enough to bring back memories of the those high-flying 1980s, when Congress deregulated the Savings and Loan industry. Remember how those decent people who ran the banks promised to lend money wisely because they realized their moral duty, their civic duty, their practical duty to manage our finances in a responsible way?
Remember how our governor convinced his friends on the board of Southwest Savings and Loan to lend him $25 million to build the Camelback Esplanade in Phoenix, while he himself invested less than $500? Remember how he collected millions in development fees before the whole deal went south and Southwest collapsed, leaving the taxpayers with $197 million in losses?
Remember how Fife personally guaranteed that labor union pension funds invested in his grand Mercado project wouldn't be lost? Well, that deal didn't work out so well, either, but Fife hasn't made good on that guarantee. Last week, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge hit him with an order to pay the union $8.8 million. Our governor says he plans "to negotiate it for quite a few years," and since his fortune is mostly wrapped up in trust funds, we can safely guess he won't be writing any checks soon.
Never mind all that. Today, our governor wants us to trust him. This time he wants us to trust him with our forests, our water, our air, our children's legacy. He wants us to believe him when he says he'd never sell our environment out just to make a buck.
Fife, we hope you'll understand when some of us say that's a hard thing to do.
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