The Bush administration may be moving to give state and local governments more influence over US environmental and conservation policies.
That's a possible conclusion to be drawn from the White House's nomination of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to be the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Like Coloradan Gale Norton, current secretary of the Interior, governor Leavitt is a Westerner who has long chafed under federal regulatory power.
But Leavitt is also a low-key administrator who has worked to build a consensus between business and environmental groups on at least some issues. Thus the Bush team might also hope Leavitt provides them a measure of cover on the environment - one area in which the president is politically vulnerable, according to polls.
"There is no progress polarizing at the extremes, but there is great progress. There's great environmental progress when we collaborate in the productive middle," said Leavitt.
If confirmed by the Senate this fall, Leavitt will immediately face a number of burning issues. Among them: the development of new regulations intended to simplify power plant and refinery maintenance requirements, and pushing the administration's Clear Skies Act, a major Clean Air Act rewrite that environmental groups oppose.
But confirmation is by no means assured. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, both presidential candidates, made it clear Tuesday that they will strenuously oppose Leavitt, and will use his confirmation hearings as a forum in which to denounce the administration.
"We aren't going to have a real commitment to the environment until we have a new president," said Senator Kerry.
The EPA post is notoriously difficult, as President Bush's first appointee, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, found to her dismay.
Governor Whitman left in May following a high-profile resignation and reported clashes, behind the scenes, with the White House. Some high administration officials, and many in industry, found Whitman too tough for their liking. Environmentalists disdained her as the moderate face of what they considered immoderate policies.
Criminal pollution cases referred for prosecution by EPA have dropped 40 percent since the start of the Bush administration while civil pollution cases are down 25 percent, notes Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"Based upon the conversations we're having with EPA employees, Whitman's legacy, which will now be passed on to governor Leavitt, is of agency professionals who feel demoralized and ethically compromised," Mr. Ruch says.
Though Leavitt's nomination attracted immediate scorn from environmentalists ranging from the Sierra Club to local conservation groups in Utah, others cheered Bush's selection.
Sen. Conrad Burns, (R) of Montana, who is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, predicts that Leavitt will bring "long overdue balance and common sense" to the way natural resources are managed in the West - in marked contrast, he suggests, to the preservation-dominated agenda of the Clinton administration that aimed to protect land from logging, mining, and energy development.
Leavitt, a three-term governor, is looked upon as a rising star within the GOP. A devout Mormon, he was born in Cedar City, in a southern corner of the state close to Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks and famous for its red slickrock scenery.
A strong ally of ranching, mining, and energy interests, and a leader among Western governors in shaping wildfire policy, resolving water disputes, and in seeking revisions to the Endangered Species Act, Mr. Leavitt in recent years has championed a concept of managing public resources he calls "Enlibra."
He believes that local people deserve a stronger voice in determining the management direction of federal forests, parks, and rangelands.
How he intends to transfer the philosophy to EPA enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, for example, is still unclear.
The issue looming largest for him is the administration's plans to assist energy companies in fast-tracking oil and gas development on a huge expanse of public and private land in five Western states, including Utah.
Already, environmentalists have expressed a number of concerns. Another worry concerns the use of coal. Although Governor Whitman earlier advocated taking a harder line on regulating coal-fired power plants, Leavitt, in attacking the Clinton Administration for creating Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in part to prevent coal mining in Utah, has indicated he would entertain both constructing new power plants and retooling old ones. Environmentalists say it could result in sullying the very air over the Grand Canyon that Mr. Leavitt boasts he once helped to clean up as governor.
According to Senator Burns, critics who suggest Leavitt will preside as a patsy for industry are mistaken. "Governor Leavitt's been a problem solver who believes government is there to serve the people, not become activist," Burns says. "But if anybody violates the law, he's going to be pretty tough."