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

Presidential Politics in the Northwest

Air Date: Week of

Tim Egan, Northwest bureau chief for the New York Times joins Jan to discuss President Clinton's decision to designate a national monument in southern Utah, and a selection of other environmental issues that bear on the President's bid for re-election.


NUNLEY: Last year President Clinton angered environmentalists when he signed a budget bill containing the so-called Salvage Logging Rider. The measure opened up vast tracts of ancient forest to logging, mostly in the western states. Now Mr. Clinton appears to be making amends. On September 18th in Seattle the President announced a land swap deal with timber companies that he said would protect large tracts of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. Earlier in the day with the Grand Canyon as a backdrop he designated nearly 2 million acres in Utah's Red Rock wilderness as a national monument. The move will prevent mining companies from developing massive coal reserves buried there. With us to discuss this development and an array of environmental politics in the west is Timothy Egan, Seattle Bureau Chief of the New York Times. He says the President's announcement in Utah will go a long way to solidify environmentalist support.

EGAN: Remember in, late in Jimmy Carter's term, he declared much of the Alaska wilderness to be off limits to development. He did this by Executive Order. Similarly, Clinton has been told that he could, by Executive Order, declare some of the Red Rock country of Utah that's now in play, there's a giant Dutch-owned coal mining company, Andalax, that wants to build a big coal mine in the middle of the Red Rock, Utah, wilderness. By declaring it a national monument he could just usurp Congress and bingo, it would be protected under the same protection that something that's in the National Park System has. So the greens are saying you do this, you'll be back as a hero. Now, he'll tick off a lot of rural westerners, but they feel like those people are not in the majority anyway, and there's no traction for Dole anywhere in the west, so they feel it's a political calculation they can live with.

NUNLEY: So, what has Bob Dole been saying to western voters?

EGAN: The Dole campaign is really missing an opportunity. He's been going around, in his rare visits to western areas -- for example, he was in Billings, Montana, a few weeks ago. He was in Salt Lake City, Utah, also a week or so ago. And he's been saying that the Clinton Administration is waging a quote, "War on the west." Now, this is a term that was used effectively by the Wise Use Movement 2 years ago --

NUNLEY: Right --

EGAN: -- to describe measures by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to restrict grazing or to restrict mining, to protect wild lands or endangered species. Well, war on the west is not being used this time around, because it has no traction. It is hurting Republicans. Newt Gingrich went around and told Republican candidates, "Don't use that term." But apparently the message has not gotten through to the head of the ticket yet.

NUNLEY: Now, how many House seats are up for grabs in the western states?

EGAN: Well let's look at the big picture first. Remember that the Democrats need about a net gain of 20 seats in order to change the House from Republican back to Democrat. They think they can get half of those -- half of them -- in the west. Where do they get them? They get 6 in California. They get at least 1 in Oregon. They think they can get another 2 to 3 in Washington State. Washington State, by the way, had the biggest swing 2 years ago from Democrat to Republican. It went from an overwhelmingly Democratic delegation to an overwhelmingly Republican delegation, so it's a big, you know, sort of soccer mom suburban vote swing state. So they think they can pick up 2 or 3 there. Then they go to Idaho, where there's a target they really want to knock off; that's Helen Chenowith. Then you go down to Arizona, where the Democrats think they can get at least 1 pickup. And again, they expect to get one seat in Colorado as well. So looking at just the western landscape, which putting aside California and Oregon is traditionally thought to be big Republican territory, the Dems, ironically, think they're going to make their biggest gains in the west. And they're going to make them largely on the issue of the environment.

NUNLEY: What are some of these House races in which environmental issues are coming up?

EGAN: In the state of Washington you have a very interesting race going on with Rick White. Now, Rick White started out a freshman Republican and he voted initially against some environmental measures. Then his second year, he voted strongly for them. He's one of the few Republicans that has a semi-decent environmental record. The League of Conservation Voters, for example, gave him a 30 rating, and now there's a big internal dispute among the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters as to whether they should lay off on Rick White because they do not want to be seen as just supporting all the members of one party. White has also made a big issue now, and this is really, I think, an incredible demonstration of how far the issue's moved -- he's made a big deal of favoring tearing down a dam on the Olympic Peninsula, a dam that's destroyed one of the great salmon runs in North America -- it's called the Elwa Dam. It would cost taxpayers about $100 million to tear the dam down, but supposedly it would bring back this huge salmon run. Ten years ago tearing down that dam was an issue for Earth First, the, you know, the radical anti-environmental group.

NUNLEY: Mm hm. One of their very first actions, I believe.

EGAN: Exactly. And now you have this freshman Republican, scion of this great oil family, advocating what Earth First first advocated 10 years ago.

NUNLEY: And what about the Senate races? I've heard Senator Larry Craig of Idaho is facing a pretty tough re-election battle.

EGAN: Idaho is probably the second most Republican state in the nation right after Utah. Democrats there are almost an endangered species. Clinton ran third in the 1992 election. Now, you have a challenge there by a member of the Board of Directors of the Wilderness Society, a person named Walt Minic. He's well-financed and he's making a run at Craig. The latest polls show him within 10 points, which in itself is just astonishing. Idaho is one of those states that's had a lot of newcomers. They come to the state primarily for quality of life, and the environment is a huge issue there. In fact, Minic is trying to make it the number one issue. The other interesting thing there that's driving that race is a ballot measure to keep nuclear waste out of the state if Idaho. The person behind that is Bruce Willis, the actor, who happens to own most of a small town south of Sun Valley. Now, Bruce Willis is a Republican. But since he's moved his family to southern Idaho and he's raising his kids there, he found out that he's living in a state that may soon become a nuclear waste dump. So he helped to finance this ballot measure to keep nuclear waste out of Idaho. But the Republican establishment is against that ballot measure, that is, they're for bringing nuclear waste into Idaho. And Minic is just driving this thing all the way to November 5 in the Senate race.

NUNLEY: Sounds like in some sense the environment has become the fulcrum on which that '94 revolution has sort of gone flat.

EGAN: Yeah, I think that's fascinating, because House Speaker Gingrich, I think, misread the mandate of the new western Congresspeople. He let people like Helen Chenowith or J.D. Hayworth of Arizona become very high profile, and they would go around, they'd speak at the Wise Use property conferences and they'd say we're going to destroy the Endangered Species Act. And they'd say we're going to drive the environmentalists to the sea. And that just scared a lot of people. So what happened was, they misread what came out of the west in '94, and now it's coming around to haunt them. And I think it's important to look at the historical shift in the west right now. You haven't had the Democrats win the state of Arizona since 1948; they're leading by 10 points down there. The Democrats may take every western state except for Utah and Idaho, and that would be a shift of truly historic dimensions saying that -- not saying necessarily that the west is becoming more liberal, more Democrat, but simply saying that the majority of people out here care about environmental issues, and the party that goes against those does so at their peril.

NUNLEY: My guest has been Timothy Egan, Seattle Bureau Chief of the New York Times. Thanks for being with us, Tim.

EGAN: Sure, it's been a pleasure.



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