Conservation Groups Fear Republican Congress

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 7, 2002 (ENS) - Forest protection groups are holding rallies and other events across the country today to protest Bush administration plans for fire management on public lands. The groups fear that Tuesday's elections, which boosted Bush's power to make policy, will lead to the undermining of forest protections - a fear shared by many environmental groups as Congressional power shifts away from some of conservation's strongest advocates.

Today's demonstrations, planned before Tuesday's elections, challenge the Bush administration's so called Healthy Forests plan, which critics charge would increase logging in national forests and reduce public and scientific oversight of projects intended to reduce wildlife risk. But many environmental groups are concerned that risks to national forest health are just the tip of the iceberg now that the Republican Party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.

wildfire

The Bush administration has proposed increasing logging projects on public lands to reduce wildfire risk, despite studies suggesting that logging projects increase risk of catastrophic fires. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"The good news is that never before have so many people been elected to Congress claiming to care about the air, the water and the land," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "The bad news is that so many of them didn't mean it."

Speaking at a monthly Sierra Club meeting held Wednesday, Pope noted that both Congress and the nation remain almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, as evidenced by the number of races that were still too tight to call the morning after Tuesday's general election.

But despite the nearly 50/50 split still found in the House and Senate, members of the Republican Party, who in recent decades have tended to vote against stronger environmental protections, will now control the flow of all legislation passing through Congress. That will make it much easier for President George W. Bush, whose two year record in the White House is peppered with attempts to undermine some of the nation's most basic environmental laws, to push through controversial plans to open more public lands to energy exploration, logging, mining and other extractive industries.

"The Republican leadership feels it now has a mandate, but if recent history is any guide, those who believe they have a mandate usually proceed to squander it," added Pope.

Alys Campaigne, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said the NRDC is concerned about the changes that the shift in Congressional power will have on three fronts: oversight of White House actions, Congressional priorities and judicial appointments.

"We're concerned about a lack of any oversight of the administration's anti-environmental agenda," Campaigne noted, such as recent moves to "fundamentally weaken" the Clean Air Act through revisions to the new source review regulations.

While the Senate was controlled by Democrats, a variety of committee leaders called for the Bush administration to disclose the process by which it made decisions regarding a national energy plan, proposed revisions to the Clean Air Act and other controversial moves. With the Senate committees now in Republican hands, committee chairs are expected to be less likely to scrutinize the administration's decisions, and "oversight at the committees I think will be hampered," Campaigne explained.

"While the environment enjoys bipartisan support, leadership at committees is likely to shift to people who are more hostile to environmental protections," she added.

Conservation groups are also concerned about the shifting priorities of all Congress members, Campaigne noted. Many of Tuesday's winners - both Democratic and Republican - were well funded by contributions from various polluting industries, cashing in the last campaign cycle before tight new restrictions on so called soft money contributions become effective.

Those contributors hope to influence votes regarding issues that affect their industries, and may seek to weaken restrictions on pollution emissions, and increase access to public lands for logging and mining.

refuge

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contains millions of acres of fragile tundra habitat that conservation groups warn could be damaged by oil drilling. (Photo courtesy Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)
According to the Sierra Club, the upcoming session of Congress is likely to feature attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act, accelerate logging in national forests, create additional tax breaks for energy companies, and open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public lands to oil development.

For example, incoming Republican Senators John Sununu of New Hampshire, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia both voted in favor of Arctic drilling as members of the House in 2001. Sununu helped draft the Arctic refuge drilling language that survived in the House version of an energy bill that could be debated later this year and into the spring.

"I think we'll see the Republican leadership bring its agenda out of the back room and onto Capitol Hill," said the Sierra Club's Pope. "I think it's going to be a more visible battlefield."

A less visible, but no less critical area where the influence of Republican power will be felt will be in the approval of Bush administration appointments to federal courts.

The Democratically controlled Senate had moved to block the most conservative of White House nominees to the federal bench, but most judicial appointments are likely to sail right through with the Senate in Republican hands, warned NRDC's Campaigne.

"There are now two vacancies at the DC Circuit Court, which holds almost unique jurisdiction over environmental issues," Campaigne said, explaining that the Washington DC court hears nearly all cases where federal authority is involved, such as those concerning the powers of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers.

"Shifting some of those spots to anti-environmental judges would have a dramatic impact for years to come," she added.

power plant

The Bush administration has proposed easing rules that require aging power plants to install state of the art pollution controls when they upgrade or expand their operations. (Photo by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
Conservation groups expect to see many attacks on environmental protections in the early months of 2003.

"The Republican Congressional leadership will probably come out of the gate fast in January," said Sierra Club conservation director Bruce Hamilton. "They'll want to make anti-environmental moves early in the next session of Congress, not close to the 2004 election, because they know those moves aren't popular with the public."

Pope agreed, noting that the election did not signal a change in what voters want.

"The American people did not vote to drill in the Arctic, to cut down our national forests, or to weaken our clean air and clean water laws," Pope said. "If Congress thinks so, they're in for a rude shock."

Some anti-environmental moves could come as early as this month. As part of a national day of action today, forest protection groups targeted key members of Congress to stop a legislative compromise on forest fire prevention that would increase logging on public lands.

In October, the House Resources Committee passed legislation drafted by Representative Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican. That bill, HR5319, would undermine existing environmental safeguards for public lands and block citizen's efforts to protect national forests, using language consistent with the Bush administration's Healthy Forest Initiative.

"Now that Bush is free to drive his agenda through Congress, Democrats shouldn't just roll over and let him deliver our public forests to the logging industry on a silver platter," said Andrew George, campaign coordinator for the National Forest Protection Alliance (NFPA). "The proposal from the Bush Administration to 'streamline' environmental laws and exempt Forest Service projects from judicial review is a transparent attempt to increase commercial logging in our national forests - which has been this administration's stated intention since day one."

The NFPA and other groups spent the day holding rallies and flooding congressional offices with calls urging members to ditch any deal that would escalate logging.

"There is no doubt a cocky White House and their gloating allies in Congress are going to use their inflated muscle to try to open up public forests to industrial strength logging," said Brian Vincent, California organizer for American Lands. "Their mid-term gains could mean political Armaggeddon for national forests."