`Big Green' Plan Rolls Forward In California

Wide-ranging proposal tests limits on how far voters are willing to go to save environment

CALIFORNIA is entering a new period of environmental activism that is worrying business but which supporters believe puts the state in the vanguard of a dominant issue of the 1990s. The ``greening'' is evident on many fronts, from the influence the environment is playing in top political races to the number of Hollywood celebrities - always a barometer of what's trendy - speaking out on issues ranging from ocean protection to ozone depletion.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is an initiative about to be submitted for placement on the November ballot that would affect everything from the food Californians eat, to the forests they stroll in, to the air they breathe. Dubbed ``Big Green,'' it is the most comprehensive environmental initiative ever put forward in the United States.

To many in the business community, it presages economic calamity. Supporters see it is a foretaste of the future: seemingly disparate conservation concerns linked under one roof.

However it turns out, the measure puts California in the forefront of testing how far the public wants to go in allowing environmental concerns to push politics in new directions.

``California is moving toward a more activist role after a decade of quiescent behavior,'' says Monty Hempel, an environmental policy specialist at the Claremont Graduate School.

Like many ballot propositions, Big Green was born out of activists' frustration with the normal channels of making law, the state Legislature and governor. Unable to get action on their agenda, environmental groups and some politicians decided to take their wish list directly to the voters.

But instead of drafting a simple proposal dealing with one issue, they drew several together. Among other things, Big Green would prohibit offshore oil development, protect ancient redwood forests, outlaw cancer-causing pesticides in agriculture, and curtail the use of chemicals that contribute to the depletion of the earth's ozone layer. It would also create an elective post of environmental czar to oversee these strictures.

Proponents say the initiative is a reflection of the growing realization that separate environmental issues are actually linked and must be addressed as a whole if the planet is to be preserved.

``We are trying to draw all these areas of concern together under the general theme of sustainable environmental development in California,'' says Mary Nichols, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council here. ``I think this is going to be the direction pursued in other parts of the country.''

Not all motives behind the initiative may be so high-minded. It is, as one backer concedes, cheaper to launch one initiative encompassing many issues than several initiatives each addressing one concern.

There is also an element of politics: State Attorney General John Van de Kamp has made Big Green a central part of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.

The measure's backers, which also include California Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D) and most major environmental organizations, plan to end their signature drive next week. Some 375,000 valid signatures are needed to qualify a measure for the ballot. Organizers have 650,000 so far.

The initiative, should it pass, would have implications beyond possibly being mimicked by other states. The pesticides provision, for instance, would not only affect how California growers produce crops but potentially other farmers too: Food produced outside California containing any banned pesticide could not be sold here.

Business interests believe the measure would put them and the California economy in a bind. According to preliminary findings of a study the initiative's critics have commissioned, by the year 2000 the measure would raise gasoline prices 25 to 50 cents a gallon, increase electricty rates 20 percent, and cost the state 1.4 million jobs. Food prices would rise, too, the study asserts.

The initiative ``is too drastic,'' says Jack McDowell of Woodward & McDowell, a political consulting firm hired to fight Big Green.

Poppycock, say supporters.

``They are just crying wolf and being extreme,'' says Bob Mulholland, campaign manager for the initiative.

To combat the measure, critics are turning to what has become a favorite tactic in California politics: putting up a ballot proposition of their own.

Agricultural interests are collecting signatures for a measure that would increase pesticide testing, but would be far less restrictive than Big Green. It is sponsored by a group called Californians for Responsible Food Laws (CAREFUL).

The timber industry is circulating a measure intended not only to cancel out the forest-protection provisions of Big Green, but also supercede a third initiative. This one is put forward by other environmentalists and would be restrict logging even more than Big Green.

Certainly if all the business interests affected by Big Green banded together they could mount a formidable campaign. But it is not certain how many will coalesce to defeat it. In opposing the measure, they run the risk of appearing to be anti-environment at a time when the environment is as popular as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

``A lot of companies don't want to be put in the position of appearing to be against environmental quality - and this is how the proponents will try to frame it,'' says Kirk West, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, which does oppose it. Nevertheless, he believes many companies will step forward.

No doubt enough will to make it one of the most heated campaigns of the year - and one the most watched nationwide.

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