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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Clinton for President

Air Date: Week of October 18, 1996

Expectations ran high among environmentalists when Bill Clinton was sworn into office last term. With Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt in his cabinet, many thought that major legislative action would be inevitably and swiftly enacted. John Rudolph reports on what may have been the unrealistic hopes of activist protectionists, and profiles what President Clinton has done so far on timber, wilderness and mining issues, and what he may be expected to do if he wins a second term in office.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ask just about anybody including a politician if he or she is for environmental protection and you'll almost always hear the answer yes. But then if you ask just how much one is willing to do to protect the environment, the answers can be widely different. Take the President of the United States, for example. Mr. Clinton has made the call for environmental protection a key part of his campaign, but his actions during these past 4 years have been scattered all the way across the ecological spectrum from green to brown. Mr. Clinton recently moved to protect parts of the Red Rock wilderness in southern Utah, and he has made sweeping changes in how the government regulates risky chemicals, including pesticides. On the other hand, he cut off a bid by his own interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, to reform grazing on public lands, and he has failed to reduce the nation's energy consumption. All in all, the President's policies have left many people with mixed feelings about his first term. John Rudolph has our report.

(Cheering and applause)

RUDOLPH: September 18th, a picture-perfect day at the Grand Canyon. The colors of the canyon walls seem to vibrate in the sunlight as President Clinton arrives to make what the White House calls a major environmental announcement.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, accompanied by the Vice President.

(A band plays Hail to the Chief amidst more cheering and applause)

RUDOLPH: The President tells the crowd gathered on the rim of the canyon that he's using the powers of his office to create a $1.7 million acre national monument in nearby southern Utah.

CLINTON: Today we are keeping faith with the future. I am about to sign a proclamation that will establish the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

(Cheering and applause)

RUDOLPH: The timing of this announcement was not accidental. It came during a campaign swing through the west. By establishing the national monument, Mr. Clinton put an end to plans for a huge underground coal mine in the middle of a vast wilderness region. The President said the Administration will work to find other land more suitable for coal mining.

CLINTON: While the Grand Staircase Escalante will be open for many activities, I am concerned about a large coal mine proposed for the area. Mining jobs are good jobs and mining is important to our national economy and to our national security. But we can't have mines everywhere, and we shouldn't have mines that threaten our national treasures.

(Applause and cheers)

RUDOLPH: Like many of President Clinton's actions on the environment, his decision to create the national monument in southern Utah was a compromise. Conservation groups want even more of the region protected, while Utah's top elected officials strongly favor developing the state's wilderness areas. Mr. Clinton's supporters say the Utah announcement demonstrates his ability to transform intractable controversies into positive gains for the environment. They point to other examples as well. The recent deal to relocate a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone National Park. The agreements between logging interests and environmentalists over the future of northwestern forests. And the Brownfields Initiative, intended to speed the industrial redevelopment of lands where toxic pollution has been cleaned up. But some voters are disappointed in the President. Even voters who favor his re-election.

(Milling conversation)

RUDOLPH: John Sauter and Joy Mast were in the crowd at the Grand Canyon when the President spoke.

SAUTER: I don't think that the President has had a real consistent environmental policy or has been allowed to have one. If consistency is trying to figure out politically what's feasible, then yes, this is entirely consistent with it.

RUDOLPH: How would you rank your feelings about the President's environmental record? Are you happy with it? You disappointed? Are you --

MAST: I had very high expectations and mostly I expected Gore to help a little more, and Bruce Babbitt. I thought with Gore and Babbitt they'd keep Clinton on line a little more. And more environmental issues would get passed. Certain environmental issues may have even gotten strengthened. And I haven't really seen it.

RUDOLPH: In response to these kinds of complaints the President's defenders argue that when Bill Clinton took office, expectations for his environmental policies were unrealistically high. After all, he picked Al Gore as his vice presidential running mate. As the author of the best-selling book Earth in the Balance, Mr. Gore had impeccable environmental credentials. Another reason may have been the ambitious environmental agenda that candidates Clinton and Gore laid out during the '92 campaign. They promised to pursue a broad range of goals, including reducing solid and toxic waste and air and water pollution, preserving places of natural beauty and ecological importance, exerting international leadership on global environmental issues, shattering the choice between environmental protection and economic growth, and improving energy efficiency.

CLINTON: Many of our environmental problems grow directly out of our energy practices.

RUDOLPH: Mr. Clinton, speaking shortly after he was elected, at an economic conference he organized in Little Rock, Arkansas.

CLINTON: It seems to me we have a real opportunity to revitalize major sectors of the American economy without throwing it into major dislocation with a sustained, long-term commitment to a new energy and environmental policy. One which recognizes that sustainable economic growth and environmental protection are compatible and indeed interlocked.

RUDOLPH: It's been almost 4 years since President-Elect Bill Clinton made those remarks. And today many environmental groups wonder what happened. Dan Becker is with the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. Becker says Mr. Clinton has done very little to improve energy efficiency in one of the most critical areas: the auto industry.

BECKER: There were a series of things that he did agree to that were very damaging to the environment. One of them was helping the auto industry kill off the electric car. Another was allowing, signing the bill that raised speed limits, which will cause not only more traffic deaths but also more pollution on the highways. He agreed to allow the gas tax to go down if Congress got him the bill, and fortunately they never did. And he agreed with the auto industry not to raise the fuel economy standards for America's cars and trucks because the auto industry opposed doing so.

RUDOLPH: Becker gives Mr. Clinton slightly higher marks for his approach to global warming. Becker notes that until very recently, the Administration continued a policy established by President George Bush. The policy advocated voluntary measures by countries to reduce auto emissions and other so-called greenhouse gases that are believed to cause global warming. This summer, however, the Clinton Administration suggested for the first time that it would favor binding targets and timetables for cutting gas emissions. It's a position long advocated by environmental groups and many countries. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt argues that the Administration is writing some important new chapters in environmental history.

BABBITT: If you look at the EPA side, and that is of course air and water pollution, toxics, that kind of thing, there's been a tremendous move to tighten up standards and to find innovative ways to, of bringing, giving industry some incentive by saying if you want to get serious about meeting the requirements, we'll be flexible about the methodologies that you use. We don't want to regulate you unless that's a last resort. On the natural resource side, the progression really began with the President's forest plan, which -- I don't think it's commonly appreciated, the importance of that. We set aside 7 million acres of old growth forest in reserves up in the northwest. People think of the spotted owl, but that plan was really about protecting salmon runs, about trying to find balance in an entire ecosystem.

RUDOLPH: But while the Administration has scored some environmental victories, it has also been criticized for being too timid. In the face of strong Congressional opposition, it backed off a plan to reform laws governing grazing and mining on Federal lands in the West. The Administration has also been faulted for not pushing hard enough to win reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, or the Superfund program for cleaning up toxic pollution. All this occurred in the first 2 years of the Clinton Administration, when members of the President's own party still controlled the House and Senate. Ironically, it took the election of a Republican majority in Congress to inject energy into the Clinton environmental program. Again, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

BABBITT: There's no question that the election of a new Congress in 1994 was a wake-up call to all of us. I mean, these people came into town and said we're going to repeal the provisions of the Clean Water Act, we're going to gut the Endangered Species Act, we're going to slash the Interior Department budget, take away EPA's enforcement power. You know, they were even proposing to close down national parks. Well I've got to tell you, honestly, sure, that sent a lot of us to the barricades to say okay, we've got to start explaining what we're doing and reconnect with the American people.

RUDOLPH: President Clinton has been widely praised by environmental groups for vetoing Republican bills that would have weakened environmental protection laws and cut funding for environmental programs. But those same groups also criticized the Administration for not pursuing its own initiatives. Again, Dan Becker of the Sierra Club.

BECKER: When it came to environmental protection, the Clinton Administration was very good with the shield, but somehow they forgot about the sword.

RUDOLPH: Many people are clearly disappointed in the President's environmental record. In some cases they are truly angry at him. Environmental groups are furious at Mr. Clinton for signing a bill permitting what's known as salvage logging in national forests. The measure won approval in the early days of the Republican-led Congress. It permits the removal of dead and dying trees, but critics say it's really an excuse to allow widespread logging on Federal lands that previously had been considered off-limits. There's also anger among conservative Republicans over the President's veto of virtually all the environmental legislation in the Contract With America. Some moderate Republicans express a different concern. They say the environment is clearly not a priority for the Clinton Administration. Congressman Wayne Gilchrist is a Republican from Maryland.

GILCHRIST: The problem with just all this negative rhetoric about how bad Republicans are and how we're going to stop environmental catastrophe is that that's been going on now for too long. We need people that are going to move forward and say we have a problem with biological diversity and here's how scientifically sound judgment is going to be included in finding solutions. Here's a problem with persistent toxic chemicals that have a whole range of damaging effects on people, and here's what we're going to do to resolve that. If all we ever do is react, react, react, and then use the environmental issues as a political soundboard, then nothing is solved. And I think this is Mr. Clinton's record.

RUDOLPH: Finding people who wholeheartedly support the Administration's record on the environment is difficult, but not impossible. Charles Wilkinson is a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an authority on land and water issues. Wilkinson says that by appointing people with a strong land ethic and an environmental ideology, the President has demonstrated his leadership.

WILKINSON: I am an admirer of what has happened over the last 4 years not because you can necessarily point to great bold strokes, and I personally wish there were more of them, but nonetheless I honestly feel that this administration has sent good people out to deal with those problems. They've dealt with them firmly and they have made progress. And progress sometimes comes slow. We've got to be incrementalists.

RUDOLPH: Wilkinson believes that if the President is re-elected, his second term will be marked by continued progress on environmental issues. But others disagree. Bruce McMath heads the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club. He's a long-time observer of Mr. Clinton's environmental policies both as governor of Arkansas and as President.

McMATH: He's had a real interest in economic issues. He's had a real interest in education issues. But he's never, ever, evidenced a sincere interest in dealing with serious environmental issues of the day. Unless, somehow or another, the environmental community can move this issue to the top of the agenda on the public's mind, in the public's mind. If that were to happen, I think the politician in Bill Clinton would come forth and the environment would become a major issue for him. But absent that is not going to be.

RUDOLPH: In the environmental community today, there is a shared sense of frustration over the President's environmental record. Even so, many environmental groups support the President's re-election, making it clear that despite their reservations, they prefer Mr. Clinton over his main rival, Republican Bob Dole. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph.

 

 

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