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

Clinton's First Year

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Melissa Healey of the Los Angeles Times about the Clinton Administration's rocky first year with environmentalists. Healey predicts the year ahead will find environmental groups continuing to pressure Clinton from the outside by fighting the kinds of compromises the President prefers.


CURWOOD: A year ago, the Clinton Administration glided into office with the promise to break the gridlock that had snarled Federal environmental policy for many of the Reagan and Bush years. The new president and his chief environmental policy advisor, Vice President Al Gore, promised to find common ground between longstanding adversaries, such as loggers and strict conservationists, clean air activists and car makers. But the President's first year has been one of mixed results on the environment, and according to Melissa Healy, who covers the environment for the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times, that's in large part because of the resistance of environmentalists themselves.

HEALY: The Clinton Administration has clearly tried very hard to break the gridlock, but what they are discovering is that many of the forces in the environmental movement are very, very powerful, whether it's the states or the independent environmental groups. Or, for that matter, the courts. The Clinton Administration had come into office confident that it could resolve this tension between, on the one hand, protecting jobs and, on the other hand, protecting the environment. And now, what it's finding is that that's not always easy.

CURWOOD: Now, some have written that Clinton really doesn't get it about the environment. For example, writing in Harper's Magazine for the December issue, James Conway, who is their new Washington editor, said well, you know, the President went and took his holiday in Martha's Vineyard instead of the Grand Tetons. It shows that the President really doesn't get this environmental thing. Is that a fair knock on Clinton?

HEALY: I think he really understands it. I think in many cases, expectations have gotten in the way here. I think many of the environmental groups have had extremely high hopes. Suddenly they had an administration on whom they pinned all of their hopes. And they looked for decisions that would include no compromises whatsoever. And I think what they've realized is, this is a president who is given to compromise, and compromise is something with which many of the environmental groups do clearly feel very uncomfortable.

CURWOOD: Is compromise a viable approach to environmental issues?

HEALY: Well, I think the Clinton Administration has made the argument that to allow these to remain mired in controversy has only allowed the degradation to continue. And that compromise may be short of perfect, but that at least it has gotten the process of environmental restoration and environmental protection going again.

CURWOOD: What's the downside of this approach?

HEALY: The downside is that in some cases, the gridlock that the Clinton Administration so abhors probably is doing more to protect the environment than to allow the degradation to continue. The timber compromise was an example of something where basically, the Court had stopped harvesting. What the Clinton Administration basically did was it said, we're going to now begin the logging. And clearly there are some risks for the environment in that.

CURWOOD: What do you see ahead, then? Do you think it's going to get worse, or environmentalists going to get crankier and crankier about the President?

HEALY: I think so. I think they're going to realize that institutionally, their role in the process of protecting the environment is going to continue to be one of the adversary. That they may be able to cut deals in some small cases, but that on the whole, that their role will be to stand outside the Federal government and continue to push and push and push.

CURWOOD: If you were to look into your crystal ball, where do you think we'll see a major showdown?

HEALY: Probably the Endangered Species Act. Like virtually all of the major pieces of environmental legislation that were passed in the early '70s, the Endangered Species Act is up for reauthorization this year. And in this case, I think it's going to be a battle not so much between the environmentalists and the Clinton Administration, but between the Clinton Administration and the sort of environmental backlash groups that have begun to form in the mining communities throughout the West and in the grazing communities and the ranching communities.

CURWOOD: How is the Clinton Administration doing with the agencies? For years there's been this sense that the Forestry Service under the Agricultural Department was at loggerheads with Fish and Game, which was at loggerheads with the Commerce Department oversees the fisheries. That there wasn't any kind of unified approach to environmental issues. How much, if at all, has that changed?

HEALY: This is actually very subtle, but it's probably the area in which the Clinton Administration has moved most effectively. And really, with Vice President Al Gore and his reinventing government, really has begun to reinvent the relationships of these agencies and to build these partnerships - both among the agencies and between the Federal government on the one hand and the states, and the environmental groups, and in many cases the business groups. And it seems very inside the Washington Beltway, but in the long run it may have the greatest impact on the Clinton Administration's environmental legacy.

CURWOOD: Melissa Healy covers the environment for the Los Angeles Times. We spoke to her from Washington.



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