Green Debate Turning Democrats Red

Critics say 'task forces' held across West are anti-environmental

MYRA ERWIN and Helen Chenoweth both came to the Holiday Inn here this weekend to talk about federal forest policy. But they might as well have been on distant planets.

While US Representative Chenoweth, a freshman Republican from Idaho, was inside questioning witnesses at a congressional hearing, Ms. Erwin, head of a local chapter of the Sierra Club, refused to take part, conveying her message instead from the back of a red pickup truck parked outside.

It's been like that a lot lately as activists and Democratic lawmakers boycott GOP attempts to force changes in environmental laws. They also take issue with how the GOP is talking about the changes.

In an unusual maneuver, Republicans have been circumventing the regular congressional committee process by holding ''task-force'' meetings around the country on such issues as endangered species protection and logging in the Pacific Northwest.

In the meetings, friendly witnesses are stroked, environmentalists and the Clinton administration are bashed, and experts with views contrary to anti-green lawmakers are excluded. ''It's a shame and a sham,'' Erwin says.

Republicans say it's the Democrats and environmentalists who are to blame for not showing up at public gatherings to which they've been invited. They add that tough questioning is fair play after years of pro-environment Democrats running congressional committees.

''Why is it that the environmental community and the Democrats have boycotted us?'' asked Rep. Wally Herger (R) of California at the weekend meeting in Oregon, the fourth of five task-force hearings on ''salvage logging'' in Western forests. ''Do they have something to hide?''

Democrats say they're ignoring task-force hearings because important environmental issues are not given a full airing in such forums.

Party-line science?

At the hearing here on the logging of trees left standing after forest fires, the one scientist scheduled to testify contended that such operations would do no harm. But a group of university scientists from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana warned earlier this year that salvage logging could ''accentuate the damage.''

In a recent letter to Congress, another group of scientists (including Rita Colwell, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) stated that a bill to sharply limit federal actions under the Endangered Species Act - legislation produced by another task force - ''is so riddled with scientific errors and misstatements as to be indefensible.''

Rep. George Miller of California, senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee also has expressed concern over a ''pattern of intimidation'' against pro-environment witnesses at some meetings.

At the weekend hearing here, three GOP lawmakers lauded industry representatives and local officials from timber-dependent communities. But they berated federal agency officials and hurled barbs at President Clinton, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, and Attorney General Janet Reno for not aggressively marketing ''dead and dying'' timber on federal forests.

The forums have provided an opportunity for relatively junior conservative lawmakers to wield power and strengthen their ties to political supporters back home.

Head of the ''salvage timber and forest health task force'' is freshman Rep. Wes Cooley (R) of Oregon, whose district includes many companies and communities that rely on logs from national forests. Chairman of the task force charged with rewriting the Endangered Species Act is Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California, a young second-term lawmaker and rancher who campaigned against the law many activists and pro-environment lawmakers see as their strongest tool.

It remains to be seen whether such efforts to curb environmental policy and practices ultimately will prove successful.

Sensing a public backlash, increasing numbers of Republicans are siding with Democrats to defeat measures perceived as anti-environment. Last week, 63 GOP House members helped form the majority that voted against 17 ''riders'' to the Environmental Protection Agency's appropriations bill. These legislative attachments would have limited the EPA's ability to enforce certain pollution-preventing regulations.

Green compromise

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia also has indicated that he may favor a proposal to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act that is less drastic than the one passed recently by the House Resources Committee.

President Clinton, apparently sees a political opening here. In his weekend radio address, Clinton focused on the environmental impact of GOP-proposed budget cuts.

''It's an incredible fact that this Republican budget actually singles out the environment and its protections for extra cuts,'' he charged. ''If Congress sends me a budget that guts environmental protection, that protects polluters, not the public, I will veto it.''

In response, the chairmen of budget committees in the Senate and House said: ''We're making the changes people all across the country have called for over the years, but Washington has failed to deliver.''

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