As Americans prepare to plant trees and clean up beaches this Earth Day weekend, the way President Bush handles environmental issues is becoming a major political issue.
Critics say Mr. Bush's appointments and early decisions on things like global warming and endangered species indicate a return to the James Watt era of "log it, mine it, and dam it." Wilderness Society president William Meadows says Bush "has declared war on the environment."
Such heated rhetoric mirrors that of conservatives during the Clinton years, when Al Gore was ridiculed by Bush's father as "ozone man" and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was said by conservative Western lawmakers to have "declared war on the West." It reflects an issue many Americans feel deeply about - whether they're tie-dyed tree-huggers or property-rights zealots.
White House officials defend the president's decisions - a string of which were announced this week - as being based on the best science, while providing the proper balance between ecology and economy. "This administration has an extraordinarily good environmental record," says EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman.
In fact, the administration's approach is more nuanced than eco-alarmists like to say. Even Mr. Babbitt says so, chiding environmental activists for "overreacting" on Bush's endangered-species decision.
Still, it's a tough issue for Bush. Polls show that a clear majority of Americans (57 percent) say environmental protection should take priority over economic growth. Before the recent economic downturn, that figure was even higher (67 percent). And Bush is hearing from moderate Republicans in Congress - who could hold the balance of power in a closely divided House and Senate - that he needs to green up his image.
"I believe a lot of people care more about the environment than my Republican Party seems to care about it," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut. Pro-environment GOP lawmakers worry that their party could suffer a green political backlash, much as it did when Newt Gingrich was House Speaker. Last November's elections showed that women and suburbanites in particular are more likely to vote for Democrats than for Republicans, based on concern for the environment.
"Americans are at odds with many of [Bush's] specific environmental actions," the Gallup polling organization reported this week. Among those actions: reversing a campaign pledge to regulate industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, renouncing the Kyoto global-warming treaty, and advocating oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Environmentalists criticize other things as well: the administration's lack of support for protecting vast roadless areas in national forests, the refusal to accept stricter standards on arsenic levels in drinking water as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, opposition to new reclamation safeguards for hardrock mining and to efficiency standards for air conditioners, and restricting the right of individuals to sue for protection of endangered species.
The White House counters that many of its early moves on the environment were merely attempts to slow down actions taken in the final days of the Clinton administration - even though some of those, such as roadless forest protection rules and lower arsenic levels, had been in the making for several years.
On the eve of Earth Day, officials made special efforts to show, as Whitman puts it, that "the President cares about these issues." The administration endorsed tougher reporting standards on lead used in manufacturing, and it announced that it would let stand new regulations on development in wetlands. In both cases it went against the urgings of Bush's natural constituency - business and industry - in supporting new environmental protections begun under Clinton. Whitman this week also backed away from the administration's earlier pronouncement on arsenic in drinking water (in which it opposed an 80 percent reduction), calling for reductions of at least 60 percent and ordering a fast-track study.
At a Rose Garden ceremony yesterday, Bush announced that the US would sign an international treaty aimed at controlling some of the most harmful pesticides and industrial chemicals. Under earlier administrations, the US had taken a lead role in negotiating the treaty.
Bush's approach to government's role in environmental protection reflects two basic philosophical points: That economic markets and the carrot of incentives, rather than the stick of regulation wielded by Uncle Sam, should be the general rule. And that such decisions should be made at the lowest government level possible. His proposed budget reflects these points as well. EPA and Interior Department spending would be cut by 5 percent, and states would receive some $50 million for environmental protection. While spending for oil and gas exploration would go up, the budget for energy conservation and renewable energy sources would be cut in half.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor