WITH Colorado Democrat Tim Wirth's decision to retire from the Senate, the environmental movement is losing one of its major allies on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Wirth was instrumental in Senate passage of the 1992 Energy Act, which would boost energy efficiency and conservation, and the Clean Air Act of 1990. He helped block oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and gained protection for Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the last rain forest in North America.
Working with an old prep-school friend, the late Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania, he put together Project 1988, a new approach to use market forces to protect the environment. He began talking about global warming long before it was fashionable, sponsoring legislation to address it, and is a Senate leader on the issue of global overpopulation.
But Wirth, like several other senators and dozens of House members, has had it with government gridlock and demeaning campaigns, and will take his causes into the private arena. An inadequate response
At a press conference Wednesday at his Denver office, Wirth bemoaned Washington's "largely inadequate response" to the environment.
"Even the expanding hole in the ozone layer has not awakened many in the Congress or the administration to the urgency of an array of global threats," he said in a statement. "The White House condones a know-nothing indifference. On Capitol Hill, political fears of offending entrenched interests become roadblocks to serious, concerted action."
Such bluntness has been characteristic of Wirth's career in politics, which included 12 years in the House before his election to the Senate in 1986. Congressional Quarterly's 1992 biography of Wirth cites his ability to forge political ties with Republicans, only to burn bridges with his "natural allies," moderates and liberals.
Even environmentalists, particularly those in Colorado, have found themselves angry at Wirth in the past year after he made compromises on environmental legislation or voted against the environmentalists' position.
In a bill to add more than 600,000 acres to Colorado's wilderness areas, Wirth ended a 10-year stalemate by agreeing to leave water use decisions to state jurisdiction. Environmentalists had argued that the crucial matter of water use should be under federal guidance, removed from the potential demands of land owners and towns.
Environment advocates were also disappointed last September when Wirth voted with fellow Western senators to defeat an increase in the fee for cattle grazing on federal lands. Days earlier, Wirth took part in a 47-to-46 vote to kill a proposal to suspend hard-rock mining on federal lands.
"These votes freaked people out," says Maggie Fox, director of the Sierra Club's southwest regional office in Denver. "But they were just blips on the screen.... If he had decided to run again, we would have been there for him."
"He's always been on a razor's edge with Colorado environmentalists," says Dave Alberswerth, public lands and energy use specialist at the National Wildlife Federation. "But no politician can always be 100 percent on something." Sometimes too green
Sometimes Wirth goes so far in the pro-environment direction that he risks sinking legislation. On the Clean Air Act, he and California Republican Pete Wilson proposed an amendment to impose reductions on auto emissions. The White House threatened to veto the entire bill because of it, worrying environmentalists. The amendment lost.
Now that Wirth is leaving, environmental advocates are lining up to praise the man for his commitment and expertise. Debbie Sease, public lands director of the Sierra Club, says Wirth played a crucial role because he is from the West, where issues of land use, water, and development are especially important.
Joe Goffman, senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, remembers Veterans Day 1987, when a freak snowstorm dumped a foot of snow on Washington. Mr. Goffman had a meeting with Wirth and a leading scientist on global warming. At this point, says Goffman, Wirth hadn't made a big commitment to the issue, but he came to his empty Senate building anyway for the meeting.
"Clearly, he found it compelling," says Goffman. From that point, he says, through hearings and the introduction of legislation, Wirth "as much as anybody else made global warming a real policy issue that Congress had to face up to."
In the Senate, there's no one else quite like Wirth in the combination of Western regional focus and environmental matters. Sen. Albert Gore (D) of Tennessee has staked out a high-profile position on global warming, though he's a Southerner.
In the West, Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana could inherit Wirth's mantle as the lead regional advocate for the environment. He is the new chairman of the Environment Subcommittee on Environmental Position.
He also pushed the clean-air bill through committee and led the House-Senate conference on it.
Meanwhile, Wirth plans to remain active on the environment until his term expires. He plans to attend the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro this year - hopefully, he says, with the president.