By Susan Zakin
WASHINGTON environmentalists felt like they were in Bosnia last week as they were strafed repeatedly by Republicans going gun-crazy with their newly acquired Congressional arsenal. First, the new head of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Don Young of Alaska, announced the creation of three task forces to deal with what enviros have been not-very-tactfully calling "the unholy trinity"--the Endangered Species Act, wetlands protection and private property rights.
In an interview published Thursday by the Bureau of National Affairs, Young pledged to conduct hearings on all three topics out in the hinterlands, without the "Jay Hairs (National Wildlife Federation president) and all the high, elite environmental community that supposedly talks for the environmentalist that drive their limousines and fly in their private jets back to their homes in the Carolinas and get paid $50,000 a year and then beat their chests and say look out for the environment."
Young said the Endangered Species Act, the law developers and their cronies like Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington III love to hate, was his first priority. The endangered species task force is scheduled to make recommendations by June.
June seemed a mite precipitate--Sen. John Chafee, a moderate Republican with a good environmental voting record, has given his committee a year to come up with changes--but nobody was particularly surprised. With a rating of 0 from the League of Conservation Voters and a collection of furry heads on his office wall from various big game hunting expeditions, Young isn't exactly a friend to the folks he calls "preservationists and socialists."
On the very next day, the stealth bomber flew in and dropped a payload when a rumor hit the National Audubon Society that the House Interior Appropriations Committee was discussing cutting funding for the Endangered Species Act retroactively. An aide to Ralph Regula of Ohio, the committee chair, denied the rumor, but said every penny that hasn't been spent yet was on the block to pay for a much-touted middle-class tax cut. The same day Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas (the former cheerleader) and Rep. Lamar Smith, also of Texas, introduced the "Farm, Ranch, and Homestead Protection Act of 1995," an attempt to freeze the major provisions of the Endangered Species Act until the reauthorization fight can take place. Hit by surprise attack, environmentalists quickly scurried up to the Hill.
This is only the first of a series of bombing runs planned for the Endangered Species Act, according to Randy Snodgrass, director of Wildlife Policy at the National Audubon Society, who called the Republican attacks on environmental and workplace safety laws a "barrage." Snodgrass is the acting campaign director for the Endangered Species Coalition, a group organized by the big national environmental groups--Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, Wilderness Society--but aimed at mobilizing grassroots support.
The recent effort to tighten up on unfunded mandates--laws imposed by the feds but carried out by the states--exempted such laws as the Americans with Disabilities Act and civil rights legislation, for obvious political reasons. Left on the chopping block were workplace safety and environmental laws, particularly the big three coming up for reauthorization this year: the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Young's predecessor as chief of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., got the drift early last week, when he called the unfunded mandates initiative "a back-door attack on basic environmental laws in this country."
But unfunded mandates are only one front of the Republican war against the environment. In February, Snodgrass expects a rush of so-called "private property" bills to be introduced. Like the initiative defeated by Arizonans in November, these bills would compensate property owners for potential income lost through government regulation. Opponents say that not only is such legislation morally wrong, but it also would entail setting up an enormous bureaucracy and cost the government a huge amount of money.
Risk assessment, a handy new buzzword that nobody but the much-despised contrarian New York Times environmental reporter Keith Schneider understands, is expected to be up before Congress in March. Risk assessment is an attempt to find a cost/benefit formula for the socioeconomic impacts of legislation, an approach offensive to many environmentalists who feel it's not only impossible but unseemly to place a dollar value on the survival of whooping cranes or a mist-shrouded mountain range.
In any case, the Washington circus last week was frightening enough without the onerous task of trying to make sense of risk assessment. The House heard a series of hard-right proposals from places like the Heritage Foundation, including the old "sell off all the federal land to the states" chestnut. The recital was so bizarre it inspired Rep. Charles H. Taylor of North Carolina to say, "Some of the things you've been saying make it seem as if you've been smoking a little funny weed somewhere." Taylor is a Republican, a forester and a tree farmer.
But radical proposals, from getting rid of the Endangered Species Act altogether to selling off federal land to environmental groups, obscure the real issues. To understand the current environmental backlash, it's instructive to look at the Endangered Species Act itself, which is, after all, the right wing's favorite poster child.
Of all the country's environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act is both the most forward-looking and, at the same, the most vulnerable. It's the only law to address the question of environmental protection on private land, arguably the single most important environmental issue now facing in the United States. Contrary to many of the scare stories being circulated, endangered species protection has stopped development in less than one percent of the cases in which it has been applied; however, projects have been modified or mitigation factors (you restore this wetland in the north and we'll let you build in the south) are often used to enforce the act. But as U.S. population increases, the needs of plants, animals and insects for habitat and our insatiable hunger for strip malls and tacky condos will inevitably clash in ways that are uglier and more hostile than ever. Republican good old boys like Don Young may act dumb, but they know this.
What they either don't know or don't care about is the problem that concerns biologists, that land set aside in parks and wilderness areas is not enough to preserve natural systems. If we want our children to experience a semblance of nature in the United States, instead of a low-budget imitation of Blade Runner, private land will have to be used in ways that preserve natural systems. The great conservationist Aldo Leopold called it seeing land as community, not commodity. Ed Moore calls it communism.
Meanwhile, nobody in the environmental movement has quite figured out how to deal with this problem. Some are edging closer to an expanded concept of zoning, which would include the kind of watershed-level planning now being used in some parts of California (and noticeably absent in the Tucson basin.)
This expanded zoning concept is behind the Habitat Conservation Plans now being used by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to implement the Endangered Species Act. Babbitt believes HCPs can be used to head off what he calls "environmental train wrecks." He may be right, but nobody knows if we'll have a chance to find out. The Ed Moores of the 104th Congress can't seem to wrap their minds around the fact that if we don't determine the fate of private property through social consensus--whether it's through regulation or incentives--the property won't be worth regulating. Like it or not, America's adolescent fantasy of complete freedom is biting the dust. The frontier is finally, really closed, and the Endangered Species Act is the messenger everybody, including our own J. Fife Symington III, wants to kill.
Unfortunately, when the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, nobody thought it would have to bear the entire burden of the country's long-deferred coming of age, not to mention many of the major environmental fights of the 1980s. Critics charge the Endangered Species Act has been used for purposes it was not intended to serve, notably by environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest trying to stop logging in old growth forests by suing on behalf of the endangered Northern spotted owl.
Then again, the problem may not be the Endangered Species Act itself, which was designed to be a strong law, but the lack of any other legislation that deals with habitat and biodiversity issues. Back in 1989, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman told people at the California Wilderness Conference to work for a Habitat Conservation Act that would address these larger issues head-on. But a decade of Republican rule discouraged anyone else from making such an immodest proposal. Consequently, the Endangered Species Act was forced to shoulder too much of the burden of environmental protection.
The whole messy situation is exacerbated by one unfortunate fact: The act is flawed. Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund, the leader in the environmentalist effort to save ESA, favors a system of subsidies and incentives to replace some of the law's "command and control" provisions, which sometimes inadvertently penalize landowners who have preserved habitat by restricting their activities after their neighbors have been allowed to cash in on trashing it. Bean, one of the foremost scholars of wildlife law in the United States, is pushing a number of reforms, including funding endangered species protection through a tax on outdoor equipment, a proposal similar to long-standing methods of funding federal hunting and fishing programs. Under the Clinton administration, funding for the act has gone up from around $40 million to between $60 and $70 million a year. This is far less than the $4.8 billion it would take to implement the law with maximum effectiveness, but enough to give anti-environmental forces a chance to hack away at it under the cover of budget-cutting.
It's not clear whether the reasonable and rather ingenious proposals devised by Bean and others will be heard above the redneck din emanating from Congress. Environmentalists are in the unenviable position of being outgunned, outmanned and outspent on an issue that cuts to the heart of the philosophical war being waged for the hearts and minds of Americans in anticipation of the 1996 elections. Like guerrillas darting in and out of the trees, they'll be husbanding their resources, building up support in the villages through computer networking, and recruiting citizen lobbyists in professions that will be affected by loss of species, particularly in medicine. In the meantime, they're trying not to get rattled at the Republican strafing.
"We're going to have to choose our battles," said Nick Boutis of the Endangered Species Coalition. "The big fight is going to be in June, when the act itself comes up. If there's no act, there's nothing to fight all these other battles for."
Susan Zakin is the author of Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement, being published in paperback in April by Penguin.
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