Walter Rodgers

Grizzly encounters and other reasons for federal regulations

My Alaska encounters with fly fishing and grizzly bears reveal how much America benefits from federal regulations. Without them, this pristine wilderness would likely not exist, and neither would many protections for consumers and workers.

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Imagine standing 40 yards across a river from a good-sized Alaskan grizzly bear emerging out of willow scrub. There is no tree to climb.

We regard each other, yet both of us go about our business. The grizzly is fishing for spawning sockeye salmon. I am trying to raise a meaty rainbow trout or a Dolly Varden on a fly resembling a salmon egg. We share 100 miles of the Kanektok River because the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge is strictly regulated by both the federal government and the state of Alaska. I encounter two, three, and sometimes more grizzlies a day. There are plenty of fish for all of us. This is the tundra as God made it.

But, absent federal regulation, this primordial wilderness would likely not exist. It was saved in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter and Congress worked to preserve Alaskan wilderness refuges, creating enclaves the size of California.

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Unnecessary? Fishermen in the Lower 48 boast about “harvesting” less regulated rivers in Oregon using illegal “power bait” or “DuPont spinners” – dynamite – to fill their freezers with salmon.

Casting an orange fly toward the bear, I think that without stringent federal regulation, there would be scores of private fishing lodges and jet boats racing about. Instead of catching (and releasing) 250 salmon, grayling, and trout in a week, my take might be a fraction of that. The bears might well be rugs in some corporate chief executive’s office.

Regulations protect the weak, even bears

As the debt ceiling talks raged in Washington and GOP candidates talked of overturning “Obamacareand new financial oversight, certain undeniable realties crept into thought as I stood in the sub-Arctic river. First, that while law is the glue that holds a society together, it’s state and federal regulations that are the discipline protecting the weak and vulnerable (including bears), who, without government oversight, can’t protect themselves.

True, the government does not always know best and federal regulations are ever ripe for a case-by-case review. But it is also demonstrably true that business and industry without federal oversight can behave shamelessly.

Millions of Americans remain jobless and homeless because of the recent mortgage debt crisis. The laissez-faire, nonregulatory attitude of the previous Republican administration fed the fantasy – also promoted by the Clinton White House – that everyone was qualified for pipe-dream loans.

Small wonder American business remains wild about the hands-off philosophy of Ronald Reagan. During the eight years of his presidency, his administration eviscerated the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, gutting federal oversight. Even trade-industry publishers like Crain Communications acknowledged that leaving private industry to police itself led to the Ford Explorer and Firestone tire-rollover fatal accidents of the late 1990s.

Government oversight is not some wild-eyed liberal dream. Rather it’s an inevitable response to what is often corporate negligence sometimes approaching criminality.

Try to persuade the victims of BP’s Gulf oil spill that they can trust any oil company’s CEO. Corporate responsibility is a fiction to the families of 29 West Virginia coal miners who died underground working for Massey Energy last year. The state report, done by an independent team of investigators, concluded that Massey made little effort to ensure the safety of its miners, saying it “operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner.”

On the other hand, regulators with a job to do, have to make sure they do it.

Further back, I remember covering Senate hearings in which I heard the presidents of the Big Three Detroit automakers testify that seat belts and air pollution controls on cars would be bad for Americans.

Think of your last commercial airline flight. Then, recall what flying was like before deregulation of the airlines in the Carter administration. Which flight did you enjoy more? We may have cheaper fares – but it’s a cattle call now.

An FDA inspector who sounded the alarm

America was spared Europe’s thalidomide-birth defects disaster because of a Food and Drug Administration inspector named Frances Oldham Kelsey. The pharmacologist blocked the drug from the US market in the early 1960s because of concerns about its safety. She was later decorated by President Kennedy.

As Capitol Hill ideologues bellow about cutting spending and regulation, I can’t but wonder how much they might actually be acting on behalf of their corporate backers who still believe government is bad and unregulated industry is good.

Not even my grizzly bear could swallow that.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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