Bush takes quiet aim at 'green' laws

Methods range from easing regulations to siding with industry in lawsuits.

Slowly but surely, the Bush administration is using courts and spending legislation to reverse Clinton-era trends in environmental protection.

From the administration's point of view, this serves to: provide balance to the conflict between protecting nature and advancing the economy; give states and localities more say in such decisions; and reduce the "analysis paralysis" that can hinder federal government land managers from doing their job.

This is being done in several ways.

• Regulatory decisions by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, now headed by Mike Leavitt and Gale Norton instead of Carol Browner and Bruce Babbitt (present and former heads of the EPA and Interior, respectively). Changing regulations doesn't necessarily require new legislation.

• Siding with industries in federal lawsuits, such as the one accepted this week by the US Supreme Court regarding off-road vehicles in wilderness areas. Or, in the case of roadless areas in national forests, not defending Clinton- imposed regulations when those were challenged by the timber industry.

• And, as happened this week, attaching environmental waivers to the Interior Department's appropriations bill.

Critics say this amounts to the piecemeal dismantling of important environmental laws like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts by appointees who include former timber and mining lobbyists. Administration officials say they're merely adjusting the excesses of the Clinton administration, which included environmental activists in senior posts.

Mr. Leavitt, the former Utah governor who took over Thursday as head of the EPA, says, "I accepted this responsibility because I believe the president is committed to substantially more progress on the environment, and doing it in such a way that does not compromise our place in the world competitively."

In any case, the politics of such trends are complicated and potentially important and reflect the long-standing conflict between eastern lawmakers and those from the West. Among recent actions:

Bush appointees at the EPA have sided with the Pentagon in seeking exemption for military facilities from federal laws governing hazardous waste, air quality, and endangered species.

The Interior Department now says that off-road vehicles should be allowed in wilderness areas, even though agency experts had reported that such vehicles cause environmental damage. What's more, the administration argues in a legal case accepted this week by the US Supreme Court, the public does not have the right to challenge such decisions.

The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that "Bush administration officials have drafted a rule that would significantly narrow the scope of the Clean Water Act, stripping many wetlands and streams of federal pollution controls and making them available to being filled for commercial development.

"If implemented, the change would represent one of the most consequential of the actions the Bush administration has taken to ease environmental regulations," the newspaper reported.

In southern Oregon, the US Forest Service wants to salvage up to 1 billion board-feet of lumber from last year's 499,965-acre "Biscuit Fire," including logging in 12,000 acres of roadless areas.

What particularly gripes local environmentalists is that the usual period for public comment on the plan (90 days) has been cut in half.

Appropriations bills are a key vehicle in the effort. This week, Congress sent to the president a $20-billion Interior Department spending bill that includes administration-supported amendments effecting environmental policy. For example, the bill would expedite logging of national forests in Alaska and Montana. Next week, the Senate takes up the appropriations bill that includes funds for the EPA; that, too, can be expected to include amendments involving environmental regulation, including one that deals with small engine emissions.

There's a risky dimension to shifting federal environmental policy - even in the name of "balance" - that leaves the administration open to criticism. In a memo to Republican leaders earlier this year, GOP pollster Frank Luntz warned that "the environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general - and President Bush in particular - are most vulnerable."

One indicator: Last week, 13 states and 20 cities sued the Bush administration for its plan to adjust Clean Air Act regulations in a way critics say will increase the emission of harmful pollutants. EPA officials this week acknowledged that investigations of several dozen power plants thought to be in violation of the Clean Air Act will be dropped, confirming suspicions for critics of the administration plan allowing power plants to upgrade without reducing emissions.

While Democrats are more likely to be considered "green" than Republicans, much of the support for increased environmental protection is bipartisan.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona was the lead sponsor of legislation to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases, which won a respectable 43 votes in the Senate last week. Eight Republican Senators joined Democrats in blocking new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) named the leader of a conservation group to head the California Environmental Protection Agency. He also promises to retrofit his Hummer to run on clean-burning hydrogen.

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