In 1997, Expect Moderation In All Things Environmental

The dust settling out of last week's elections has a decidedly green tint to it. The environment played a key role in many wins and losses, and this could have an effect on how the reannointed Clinton administration and the 105th Congress address major issues involving pollution cleanup and natural resource protection.

As with other national issues of major concern, moderation is likely to be the byword.

In essence, we're unlikely to see the kind of controversial proposals offered last term by the White House - such things as an expensive "carbon tax" to promote energy efficiency or a big boost in grazing fees paid by Western ranchers. Nor are the items in the Republican Contract With America aimed at pulling teeth in environmental regulations likely to be pushed to the extent they were when the GOP gained control of the House and Senate two years ago.

'Green' voter power

In general, activists are pleased with the results of the voting. "The environment had unprecedented power in this election," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "It was a key factor, and in some races the primary factor, voters considered in making their decisions."

The Sierra Club, which pumped $7.5 million into voter education and direct electoral activities this year, claimed victory in two-thirds of the 62 House and Senate races it considered high-priority.

The League of Conservation Voters (the only other major environmental group that overtly backs candidates) contributed to the campaigns of candidates running against the so-called "Dirty Dozen" in Congress. Of those, half won. And in several other races, incumbents whom activists consider to be anti-environment won by very slim margins.

"In an election where [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich retained his majority, we defeated some of his most loyal foot soldiers," crowed LCV president Deb Callahan. "In dozens of other races, it was our issue that made the margins close. Anti-environmentalists returning to Congress got a warning shot across the bow."

More-conservative analysts put a different spin on the results.

"The best efforts of environmentalists failed to return a Democratic Congress, and they lost ground in the Senate," says Jonathan Adler, director of environmental studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "The greens' bark was worse than their bite."

If true, this is good news for "wise use" advocates pushing for less government control and more regard for private-property rights.

"We are pleased to see that so many of our champions are returning," says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the League of Private Property Voters. "It makes our job a little easier."

Some environmentalists agree that whereas the House is likely to breath less fire than it did over the past two years, the Senate is a different matter.

"In the Senate ... many of the new Republicans are distinctly more partisan than the members they replaced," states a post-election analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The 104th Congress leaves much environmental work for the 105th come next year. The Superfund toxic-waste program has yet to be reformed, as partisans of all stripes say it should be. The Endangered Species Act - whipping boy for conservatives and last, best hope for environmental activists - is in limbo as well. The federal law regulating hardrock mining, which dates back to when Ulysses S. Grant was president, has yet to be updated despite years of work on Capitol Hill.

Key Clinton issue

In the campaign, President Clinton repeatedly mentioned environmental protection as one of his key issues. And to the extent it plays well to the general electorate, he seems certain to follow through. On Tuesday, he signed a bill that adds to the national park system in 41 states.

It remains to be seen whether Vice President Al Gore, Mr. Clinton's heir-apparent, will push the environment as a major issue during the administration's second term. His 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance," cheered activists, who saw it as a sweeping and farsighted sermon on global environmental protection. But Mr. Gore's book also became a lightning rod for critics who charged that it went far beyond what most Americans would want or even tolerate.

One thing for sure: Federal courts will play a key role on the environment. The United States Supreme Court this week heard arguments in a $75 million case in which farmers here in southern Oregon are challenging the Endangered Species Act. How the high court rules here could have as much impact as anything Congress does.

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