Less Regulation, More Protection

Communities should be free to meet environmental mandates their own way

AMERICAN voters are increasingly demanding less federal regulation while aggressively telling the Republican Congress they want more environmental protection.

A democratic paradox? Not at all.

To restore and protect our air, water, soils, and birds and other animals, we need rigorous national standards. But there is no immutable law that says such standards must be reached through reams of detailed, cookie-cutter instruction codes.

Instead, wouldn't it be far better to simply set a national goal and then invite businesses and communities to reach that goal in whatever way they choose? Not only would it be; it already is.

This "virtual regulation" approach originated in the Netherlands, where the Dutch parliament in The Hague sets, for example, clean-water goals through formal debate. The Environmental Ministry then negotiates with industrial sectors, signing contracts and setting out timetables for reaching those goals. Local industries and communities, however, remain free to choose their own path to clean-water compliance, whether it be source reduction, recycling, reuse, conservation, control technology, whatever works best.

When I brought this approach to Washington in January 1993, skeptics told me that, sure, "virtual regulation" might work for a small, quiet, homogenous country like the Netherlands, but it could never work in the brawling, sprawling, litigious hothouse of American politics. We gave it a try anyway. Recently, some encouraging patterns have begun to emerge.

New York's approach

In 1993 New York City was hit with a federal mandate to build new filtration plants for water coming from its Catskill Mountain Aqueduct. Instead of rushing into a $5 billion construction program, the city tackled the problem at its source: pollution originating on the rural watersheds in the Catskills. It then worked out a deal to pay for farm- waste and waste-water treatment facilities that the rural communities could not afford.

As a result, the federal standard was met at one-quarter the estimated cost, with benefits for both urban and rural communities. In short: strong protection, light regulation.

In California, the fisheries of San Francisco Bay are collapsing from massive water diversions from the river systems that feed it. The old regulatory approach would have been to entangle 100 cities and irrigation districts in a federal permit process that reduces water use across the board.

Instead, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies set a simple but essential goal: the minimum amount of water that must reach the Bay to restore salmon runs. We then invited every stakeholder to work out their own water-allocation scheme. The result, announced at the end of 1994, was a historic truce in the California water wars.

Better than the feds

The stakeholders - from cities to farmers to environmental groups - agreed on agricultural efficiencies, water marketing, and urban conservation incentives. That's more than any federal agency ever could or would compel through direct regulation. Far more complex and far more effective. Yet the federal watershed standards remain as strong as ever.

Or consider the Southern longleaf pine forests, which supply a timber industry as large as the Pacific Northwest's. Several years ago, an ominous warning sign appeared. The red-cockaded woodpecker was put on the endangered species list, raising fears of another crisis like that brought on by the spotted owl in California, Oregon, and Washington.

But it didn't happen. Instead of mandating one-size-fits-all regulations for every Southern state, the Fish and Wildlife Service simply set strong goals for woodpecker recovery. Then it invited landowners and businesses to step forward with their own proposals to meet recovery goals.

Georgia Pacific modified timber- harvest plans with buffers around woodpecker nesting trees. Potlatch set thousands of its own acreage off limits to its loggers. Marines at Camp LeJeune avoided nesting trees like other obstacles in its amphibious assault training exercises. Eglin Air Force Base set fires to restore the kinds of trees and forage space the woodpeckers needed to thrive. And Pinehurst developers and environmentalists built golf courses that actually increase woodpecker habitat.

Strong standards required

Each approach is as uniquely instructive as it is compelling: no arm- twisting, no litigation, no heavy-handed regulation, and more woodpeckers.

This virtual approach to environmental restoration and protection cannot work without strong environmental standards. Weaken the targets, and the entire framework falls apart. At the same time, this approach requires that we relinquish the old command-and-control mentality and look outward to communities and landowners to create new, cost-effective solutions.

Once again, the American people are right in telling us that less regulation with more protection is neither an unreasonable expectation nor a seeming paradox. Rather, it is a basic, democratic instinct. What's more, Americans are not only telling us what they want, they're showing us how to carry it out in shorter time and for less money than we previously could have imagined.

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