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Envir . om logy The Democrats’ Thin Green Line Didn’t Break, It Was Never There BY JEFFREY ST. CLAIR AND ALEXANDER COCKBURN THE OFFICIAL VERSION of last year’s political battles over the environment, due to be endlessly recycled through Campaign 96, goes something like this: As the Republican Visigoths swept into control of the 104th Congress, in January of 1995, trembling greens predicted that not an old-growth tree, not an endangered species would be spared. The Cuyahoga River would once again burst into flames. The Republican threats were terrible to behold. They proposed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. They vowed to establish a commission to shut down several national parks; to relax standards on the production and disposal of toxic waste; to turn over enforcement of clean water and air standards to the states. They uttered fearsome threats against the Endangered Species Act. They boasted of plans to double the amount of logging on national forests. Against this promised onslaught, so the story goes, the Clin ton administration, moderate Republicans, and the national environmental groups formed a thin green line, and prepared to fight to the death. But lo! When the dust of battle settled with the year-end recess, the line had held and the dark knights of Republican extremism had been cut down by principled defiance. This mythic struggle has been zealously peddled in any number of publications. The Washington Post’s Tom Kenworthy evoked “a green roadblock.” Last November the national environmental organizations took out costly full-page ads in the press, chorusing “Thank-You, Mr. President For Defending the Environment.” In the Nation and the Progressive, David Helvarg promoted the same line as Kenworthythat Republicans had been beaten back by aggressive national green groups and an administrationparticularly Interior Secretary Bruce Babbittattentive once more to green concerns. Jeffrey St. Clair is a freelance writer. Alex Cockburn is a columnist for the Nation. This article first appeared in City Pages, a Minneapolis weekly. American politics thrived on these simple legends of virtue combating vice. The sadder truththat mainstream American politics is a story of collusion at the behest of the same, the one and only corporate dollaris mostly too painful for polite consumption though at the popular level it is taken for granted. For an analogy to what has really gone on in the environmental sector, consider the great budget battle. The Republicans demanded a balanced budget by 2003. Clinton drew a line in the sand, which on close analysis spelled acceptance of all essential Republican demands with some minor variations in scheduling. So, as regards the environment, the Re port from the Clinton administration, since the President’s signature on the unfunded mandates bill signaled many of the surrenders that were to come. Take drinking water. Municipalities, corporations, and utilities had argued that current federal standards were too stringent, requiring costly plants and burdensome regulatory oversight. The Clinton administration duly supported changes in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Now increased levels of lead, radon, and arsenic will be allowed to enter the nation’s water supplies for the first time since the days of the Ford administration, when the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed. Instead of funding mass transit projects, the Clinton administration caved on fuel efficiency, despite Vice-President Al Gore’s ofttrumpeted determination that rigid standards be met. Nowhere has there been more tendentious journalism than on the issue of old growth logging. Last fall reporters such as Tim Egan of the New York Times suddenly discovered a mysterious Clinton drew a line in the sand, which on close analysis spelled acceptance of all essential Republican demands with some minor variations in scheduling. publican ultras did not carry all before “loophole”-supposedly unnoticed by President them. They didn’t need to. Clinton and the Clinton and his advisorsin a rider to the Budget Democrats had already done most of the Rescissions bill which mandated four-and-a damage themselves. half-billion board feet of salvage logging in the While environmental groups were releasnational forests and made those timber sales iming mass mailings calling for cash contribu mune to all courtroom challenges. Lions to help beat back GOP plans to sell off The “loophole” stories took the line that America’s public lands, the Clinton crowd Clinton & Co. had been duped into signing was contemplating precisely such a move to the legislation by the timber companies help balance the budget. Mike Dombeck, like Weyerhaeuser and men such as Mark director of the Bureau of Land ManageRey, formerly an industry lobbyist, now ment, suggested in a memo to Interior Sec chief of staff for the Senate Interior Corn retary Bruce Babbitt that billions of dollars mittee. Team Clinton also supposedly did could be raised by selling off one hundred not realize that the law would permit log and fifty million acres of federal lands to ging in ancient forest groves to be pro the states or to commercial interests. tected under Clinton’s Option 9 Forest Plan Clinton eagerly signed one of the very for Northwest Forests. As thousand-year first bills passed by the Republican-domi old Douglas firs began to fall in such nated Congress, addressing the “unfunded groves as Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains mandates,” with states rebelling against and Elk River \(the last intact coastal water costs imposed on them by federal regula shed between California and British tions. This surrender, in the early spring of 1995, handed the Republicans the central grew apace. concession pressed by corporations and But the idea that legislative wool was their neoliberal accomplices in the think pulled over the Clinton administration’s tanks: “market forces,” not government eyes is preposterous. Its pointman on these regulations, should govern the handling of matters is Jim Lyons, the Assistant Secre environmental issues. This was the mo tary of Agriculture who oversees the Forest ment when the national environmental or Service, and previously the very savvy ganizations should have withdrawn all sup chief of staff for the House Agriculture 8 JANUARY 26, 1996