How 'green' is Clinton's legacy?

As 30th Earth Day nears, analysts review his record. Many say he's one of the top environmental presidents.

Last week, it was the sequoias, as President Clinton, humbled by a canopy of ancient trees, created a national monument in northern California to protect the skyscraping trees from chain saws.

Earlier this year, he stood at the precipice of the Grand Canyon and pledged to safeguard "natural quiet." Before that, he threw his support behind an initiative to prevent bulldozers from blazing roads through 60 million acres of virgin national forest.

These moves, along with others, were meant to solidify his legacy as "the environmental president," to hark back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt, and even to provide direction for a second term beset by scandal.

But as Saturday's 30th anniversary of Earth Day nears, a central question looms: What will his environmental legacy be?

Already, a report card is emerging. To some environmentalists, his eight years are an opportunity lost. To others, though, his moves to set aside public land and protect natural resources qualify him as one of the "greenest" presidents in American history.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality recently released a report highlighting the ecotriumphs of Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

According to the report, the number of Americans breathing clean air has grown by 44 million since 1993, and the number of citizens drinking cleaner tap water has risen 34 million.

The administration, among other things, also claims it has accelerated the pace of Superfund cleanups and gone on the attack against urban sprawl.

Following Saturday's photo op in the sequoia stands, Clinton has now placed 3.1 million acres of federal land off-limits to development as national monuments, surpassing the acreage that Roosevelt, a Republican, set aside early in the 20th century.

It's a comparison that Clinton is well aware of.

"Bill Clinton is one of the most devoted readers of history in the history of the presidency and has thus been very conscious of the Theodore Roosevelt parallel as he works to protect the environment," says Michael Beschloss, an award-winning historian. "Every president who preserves our natural bounty knows he is walking in T.R.'s footsteps."

More than that, Clinton has used the Antiquities Act of 1906 - a measure created under Roosevelt - to set aside these national monuments by executive authority. And he says he isn't finished.

"Bill Clinton, without having done much for the environment during his first five years, and recently without Democrats having control of Congress, has shown he still can leave an enormous legacy," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Some credit deserved

Although the administration labels as too extreme the Sierra Club's push to end all commercial logging on public lands, Mr. Pope says Clinton deserves credit. He has stopped a gold mine threatening the back door of Yellowstone, he has preserved the rugged geologic wonders of Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and he has vowed to restore the Florida Everglades.

Still, Pope says, the decisive test lies ahead: Can the president convert the controversial roadless-protection initiative from a proposal now being challenged by Republicans to a policy? Or will he waffle and leave its resolution to a successor next year?

A vocal group of green observers are still not sold on Clinton. "The true mark of an environmental legacy is not how many press events you stage," says Eric Glitzenstein, a prominent Washington environmental lawyer. "The real mark is how agencies under your command conduct themselves on a day-by-day basis in enforcing environmental laws and demonstrating stewardship.

"Judging the president by those standards," Mr. Glitzenstein adds, "his administration has been a disappointment."

Early in Clinton's tenure, he absorbed harsh criticism from the same environmentalists who now applaud him.

First, he bowed to pressure from Congress and Western governors by backing away from pledges to reform livestock-grazing practices on public lands and old mining laws linked to land degradation.

Then, the administration supported the Interior Budget Recisions Bill, which set in motion "salvage logging," felling countless trees in national forests under the guise of fire prevention.

It was a capitulation to Republicans that the Clinton administration deeply regretted and vowed to never repeat.

"In Arkansas, Bill Clinton learned that the elites mattered in shaping policy, and the public didn't matter much at all," says Pope. "When he became president, he used the same approach by dealing only with people on his staff, members of Congress, and governors."

But that changed in 1995, during one of three federal government shutdowns. Republicans from the West made a push to open up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Pope says the president read public opinion - which was opposed to drilling - and it emboldened him to use environmental issues to score points with the public.

Not who he appears to be

Consumer advocate and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader says the president is not the crusader he seems. With echoes of John McCain, Mr. Nader says campaign-finance reform has as many implications for protecting the environment as it does for ensuring that soft money doesn't buy political influence.

Both the president and vice president, he says, are guilty of at least the appearance of pandering to destructive development interests. "Once you look to corporations as funders of your political ambitions and campaigns, as Bill Clinton did, the consequences are as dismal as his real environmental record."

Among his litany of criticisms of Clinton, Nader says the president should have been more forceful with Detroit to make fuel-efficient cars, developed cleaner sources of energy, and taken a harder line on pesticides from agricultural runoff that have turned parts of the Gulf of Mexico into a "dead zone."

As for Clinton's wildlands legacy, he and others say it could have only ephemeral impact. If Mr. Gore loses in November, and if Congress remains in Republican hands, the president's executive orders would be overturned.

Beyond that, attorney Glitzenstein says Clinton has shied from making difficult environmental decisions.

He says the US Fish and Wildlife Service on Clinton's watch, for example, has frequently ignored the recommendations of its own scientists and sided with development interests to stall the addition of species to the Endangered Species Act.

In the case of Atlantic salmon and Canada lynx, two species recently given federal protection following lawsuits brought by environmentalists, their numbers continued to dwindle as the government refused to intervene.

"When the administration has had to make the hard choice of either saying 'yes' to a developer or 'yes' to saving a species, invariably, it has been the species which came out the loser," Glitzenstein says. "Sadly, it will be the things the president hasn't done that, in the future, will vastly exceed the importance of his high-profile public-lands decisions."

But the president still has fierce defenders.

"People in the West have, for most of the last two decades, waited for leadership on environmental issues closest to us," says Pat Williams, a professor of public policy at the University of Montana's Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "Bill Clinton is now providing that leadership in a somewhat unexpected, bold, aggressive manner."

He points to the fact that most citizens living east of the Mississippi fail to understand the divisiveness of environmental issues in the West, and adds: "Bill Clinton has come down foursquare on the side of the troops who want to conserve this place."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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