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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Political Update

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard talks with host Steve Curwood about recent political developments, including the impending end of President Clinton’s term and his final efforts on several environmental initiatives.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. With Labor Day behind us and campaigns in full swing, it's time to think again about politics and the environment. Candidate endorsements are flying now, and joining me to discuss them is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, let's start with the recent endorsement by Friends of the Earth. This is a fairly liberal organization. It was talking about endorsing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, but then, quote, "reluctantly" decided to back Al Gore. They had picked Bill Bradley in the Democratic primaries. What changed their mind?

HERTSGAARD: Well, they did say it was an agonizing choice, and in the end they were convinced that as much as they approved of Nader, really admired a lot of his stands and would have preferred to go with him, that a vote for Nader would end up being a vote for Bush. And since they also believed at Friends of the Earth that Gore was significantly better than Bush on this issue, they reluctantly decided that they had to back Mr. Gore.

CURWOOD: What kind of endorsements is George W. Bush picking up? His dad had a record pushing for the Clean Air Act. Of course, Republicans started the Environmental Protection Agency. How is he faring among the environmental vote?

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Bush has not gotten any environmental endorsements. And in fact Friends of the Earth, when they endorsed, that gave Gore a clean sweep of the three major environmental groups who do endorse presidential candidates: Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and League of Conservation Voters. One must say, frankly, it's not surprising that Mr. Bush has not gotten their endorsements, because so much of his record and platform and statements this summer have been at odds with what the mainstream environmental movement believes. For example, Mr. Bush has come out and said that he wants to increase logging in national forests, that he believes not in fighting with corporations but negotiating with them. His exact quote was, "I don't think you can litigate clean air and clean water. I don't think you can legislate clean air and clean water," unquote. Those kinds of sentiments are not likely to get much support from Sierra Club types. And so it's not surprising Bush is going into the November election without any formal environmental support.

CURWOOD: It seems that a lot of the environmental activists seem to think that the Democrats are more friendly to them. And they've been pushing President Clinton to do things before he gets out of office, out of concern that Mr. Bush might well win this election. What kinds of things are they pushing, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: They're pushing all kinds of things, Steve. They want -- one big item on their wish list is to get National Monument status from the president for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. That of course has been a bone of contention between environmentalists and oil companies for a very long time. There are 19.6 million acres there, 200 rare animal species, 350 rare plant species, the last pristine wilderness in America. It's already protected by refuge status by Congress, and that's part of the reason that the Clinton White House is not persuaded that a monument is in order here. It would basically end up being a political protection more than a legal protection. At the same time, they are pushing very hard in the other agencies to move things through. In the EPA, they've got 67 regulations that they're trying to rush through here, things like limiting the mercury emissions from power plants, limiting pesticide use. The Forest Service is finally going to get out its rule banning new roads in pristine forest areas. The Department of Agriculture is going to get out its new standards on organic foods. That of course was a big hullabaloo earlier this year. So clearly, Clinton is both burnishing his own legacy here and trying to solidify the Democratic and environmental support for Al Gore.

CURWOOD: Now, how is this monument question? That is, the president's power to designate a wild place as free from development, how is this playing in the present campaign?

HERTSGAARD: The Republicans have been steamed beyond belief about this, Steve. In Congress in June they tried to overturn it. They failed. Forty-six Republicans peeled off and voted with the Democrats. They don't like this. Clinton has either added to or outright designated as new monuments ten monument areas: 3.9 million acres in the West are now off-limits to development, drilling, mining, and so forth. Dick Cheney, the Vice Presidential nominee for the Republicans, has attacked the president, said that he's used his executive authority, quote, "willy nilly all over the West," unquote -- interesting phrase -- to create these monuments. And at the same time the Conservative Legal Foundation, the mountain states legal foundation, has sued the president, saying that he's exceeded his legal authority and he's not allowed to designate monuments just because, quote, "they are pretty, have endangered species habitat, or 800-year-old trees," unquote. Wherever you come down on this, Steve, it's clear that this is sharpening the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties as we go into this election.

CURWOOD: Before you go, Mark, I wonder if you could bring us up to speed on the Rodolfo Montiel case in Mexico. This is a fellow who's been thrown in jail for protests against logging there. He got a pretty stiff sentence just recently. The new president there, Vicente Fox, is supposed to be friendly to environmental activists. What gives?

HERTSGAARD: Good question. It's going to be a very major test case, the Montiel case. He was sentenced on August 28 to six years in prison despite the fact that the only evidence presented by the Mexican government were confessions, phony confessions that were extracted under torture. What's interesting here is that Fox has said that environmental protection will be a cornerstone of his administration. When he came to visit President Clinton on August twenty-fourth in Washington, he specifically requested a meeting with the Sierra Club and Amnesty International and the Goldman Environmental Prize, which Montiel won this year. So, we will see whether Fox, when he takes office December first, doesn't return to this case and perhaps try and strike a blow for justice in Mexico for environmental activists.

CURWOOD: Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer.



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