TCS Daily


Enviros' Search for Greens Will Take Them Somewhere Else

By Karl Hess - April 17, 2001 12:00 AM

It's springtime in America, but for some safety, health, and environmental advocates, Washington looks anything but green. White House-ordered setbacks on allowable arsenic levels in drinking water, eased mining regulations on public lands, and abandoned CO2 emission goals have convinced greens they were right from the start: George W. Bush, they claim, is the anti-environmental President.

But the sharp reaction stems less from the individual actions taken than from dashed hopes. Many environmental advocates had convinced themselves that this administration's great green hope would be Christine Whitman, who had been miscast as a clone of Carol Browner by the media. But Bush's decision to take the U.S. out of the Kyoto agreement - against Whitman's apparent recommendation - has put an end to that wishful thinking.

Bush had good reasons to bail out from Kyoto: an impossible short-term target for U.S. reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and no long-term strategy for reduction in emissions worldwide. But he stumbled by not appending to his veto of Kyoto a positive statement on alternatives to combat global warming. Bereft of an option, and perceived as too negative in the early outline of his environmental policy, Bush reinforced the worst fears of his environmental foes.

Bush's shortcoming, however, is nothing compared to that of rank and file environmentalists. Albeit well-intentioned, they have spent the past three months looking for green in the wrong place. Although Whitman's EPA is ostensibly committed to environmental innovations that could make a big difference in the nation's air and water, Whitman may not be able to move EPA appreciably away from its command-and-control core. But that is exactly what must happen if the agency is to shift from prescriptive to performance-based environmental management and embrace such green initiatives as community-based watershed protection, incentive-based stormwater treatment, and independently verified, industry-governed environmental assessment programs.

For months, green groups have discounted expectations for the Department of the Interior - the other mega-environmental bureaucracy in Washington - because new Secretary Gale Norton, had been painted as a reincarnation of the dreaded former Interior head, James Watt.

Norton surely is no James Watt. Moreover, her department may be more amenable to change than Whitman's. Where Watt presumed government's role was to prescribe resource use (invariably favoring the extractive industries), Norton favors environmental policy that is outcome-based, not prescriptive, and that is broadly democratic in its reliance on direct citizen participation. Her conservation sentiments most closely reflect those of Aldo Leopold, patron saint of American conservation. Like Leopold, she is adamant that local environmental problems are best solved at the local level by giving ordinary citizens the incentives, the institutional opportunities, and the power to be stewards of the land by choice, not by someone else's dictate. Such ideas resonate well with today's Interior.

Writing in Audubon Magazine, Aldo Leopold called for "self-government as a cure for land abuse," pointing to the efficacy of local yet transparent democracy "as a possible answer to our [conservation] problems." He dismissed advisory boards as superfluous and rejected pressure groups (similar to the Wise Use groups who lionized Watt for preferential access to natural resources) as predatory. He envisioned "social and economic units who turn the light of self-scrutiny upon themselves" and live by, not lie by, the creed of a land ethic. And he eloquently spoke of the need to persuade people to "act for themselves," not through government, in the protection and conservation of the Earth.

Norton's agenda for Interior is shrouded in the uncertainties of the administration's energy policy and the snail's pace of filling key Interior posts. But the signs are promising for a green agenda with a more Leopoldian bent.

For example, Norton might do what Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors once recommended: democratize federal lands by making public land grazing permits fully marketable to all Americans, for both conservation and livestock uses. In doing this, she would not only make public lands truly accessible to all Americans, but she would make basic decisions on how federal lands are to be used as the outcome of citizen choice, not the result of federal fiat.

She might follow the lead of Bruce Babbitt and expand upon incentive programs such as "safe harbors" to protect and recover endangered species using the power of citizen stewardship. The 2002 Interior budget pegs $60 million for state and private stewardship programs aimed at protecting imperiled species through voluntary efforts by local governments and private citizens.

She might embrace the trend toward transparent, voluntary, and independent environmental assessments, backed by third-party verification. There is no reason why a voluntary program of rangeland environmental assessment could not become an essential tool in spurring on stewardship and conservation of Interior's vast land holdings among the men and women who hold permits for the use of those lands.

She might fight for citizen-based watershed management, joining its supporters at the Democratic Leadership Council. Interior lands have been managed piecemeal for too long. Landscape-level management that is holistic in design and locally democratic in implementation is the best way to make Leopold's land ethic the ethic of the public land West.

And she might consider innovative ways to involve associations of Americans in the monitoring and stewardship of public lands, supplementing budget-strapped land management agencies. Norton might seek sustainable sources of dollars - such as user fees or other resource-based revenues - to establish citizen-accessible trusts that could fund local conservation action. She might also take the next step in turning successful community-based conservation efforts - like the Navajo New Lands in northeast Arizona - into a template for Indian Trust land reform

These are just a sampling of the policy initiatives that fit in with Norton's thinking that could give Interior the green edge. If anything, they should be a wake-up call to environmentalists who have been looking for green in all the wrong places. It's right under their noses, in the place they least expected, but where it can do America and Americans the most good.

Karl Hess is an ecologist, environmental writer, and conservation policy consultant living in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He has spoken and written extensively on western land and national environmental issues in publications that include High Country News, Reason, Human Ecology, Environmental History, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Hess is the author of three books, among them,Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History (University Press of Colorado, 1993) His current book, Promised Lands: Cultivating Democracy, Liberty and Conservation in 21st Century America, will be completed in late 2001.
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