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

The Nature of the Beltway

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Keith Schneider reflects on his first trip back to Washington, D.C. in three years since he left there as an environmental reporter for The New York Times, and the changes he found there.


CURWOOD: Washington, DC, is a place where people and ideas turn over a lot. Elections, journalistic assignments, and shifting lobbying priorities help make it a town of transients and changing beliefs. The DC environmental lobby is no exception, says commentator Keith Schneider. Mr. Schneider, who used to write for the New York Times, left the Beltway a few years ago to head a land use group in rural Michigan. He recently returned and tells us what he found.

SCHNEIDER: Where I live now there are no famous politicians. Campaigns that cost more than a few hundred dollars are rare. Rural communities here grapple with hyper-growth and haphazard development, problems due in no small part to poor decisions made by people in the city that I left. I'm an advocate now, not a reporter, so I regarded my return to Washington as a chance to help correct some of those mistakes. Naturally, I also was curious. Had anything changed?

At first glance it seemed, not much. After landing at National Airport I noticed a group of onlookers watching Colin Powell park a new Thunderbird. The Washington Post was filled with stories on welfare, Iraq, and Dick Morris's sex romp. Washington appeared to be the same old tableau of political celebrity, crisis management, and titillating scandal.

I was happy to discover, though, that something was different. Dynamic, Washington-based environmental organizations that had little prominence when I left have matured and they are now leading a new progressive movement. And they're making a difference. Among the most effective, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a national coalition trying to end America's 50-year-old policy of building new roads. Instead, they want to focus resources on repairing old roads and encouraging cheaper, less damaging alternatives, like rail.

Another group is Taypayers for Common Sense. This research organization uncovers Federal subsidies and pork barrel projects that not only waste billions, but disfigure neighborhoods and the land. In 1996, the young group helped stop an unnecessary billion dollar dam across the American River in California.

A third organization is American Farmland Trust, which has saved thousands of acres of prime crop land from being engulfed by suburban sprawl. They are the fastest growing environmental group in Washington.

What ties these groups together? Three big ideas. First, the budget deficit. Once a concern of arch conservatives, the deficit is now a powerful tool for environmentalists to argue for an end to wasteful tax policy and destructive subsidies. Second, the environment. Even conservative policy groups are coming to understand the appeal of a cleaner world. Third, a longing for real communities. Across the political spectrum, Americans are calling for new policies that make neighborhoods and cities worth living in again. I heard lots of environmentalists in Washington talking about fiscal responsibility, environmental safety, and quality of life.

Those of us working outside of Washington find none of this surprising. Across the country, a wave of young regional environmental organizations have matured in the 1990s. They are working with local governments on these problems which affect so many Americans. It was heartening to see that inside the Beltway environmental leaders are starting to get it.

CURWOOD: Commentator Keith Schneider heads the Michigan Land Use Institute, an environmental research and policy group based in Benzonia, Michigan.



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