Archived Outdoors

Waiting to inhale: Environmentalists herald new Democratic Congress

Environmental activists across the country are heralding the Democratic sweep of Congress as a mandate for better stewardship of natural resources and the environment.


“Clearly what this election means is extremism against environmental protection is out of favor, if it was ever in favor,” said Bob Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs with Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. “I think we will see a much more responsible approach to protecting the environment.”

Environmentalists have spent the past several years fighting everything from oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to the construction of a 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There have been efforts to gut the Endangered Species Act, roll back vehicle emission standards, loosen pollution mandates for coal power plants and lift the ban on logging in roadless areas of national forests. President Bush and his supporters won some of these battles.

“Instead of spending all our energy and time being against things and playing defense, it is time for environmental organizations to advance some positive change,” said Jody Flemming, executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance. “We are so often painted as being against everything and being obstructionists, but we’ve really been forced into that corner.”

All but two of the top environmental offenders in Congress labeled as the Dirty Dozen by the League of Conservation Voters — actually a baker’s dozen this year — lost their re-election campaigns. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, was one of the ousted Dirty Dozen.

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“Over the course of his career, Taylor has been a real foe of the environment,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters. Taylor’s voting record on environmental issues was a dismal 5 percent out of 100 during his 16 years in Congress, Sittenfeld said.

Sittenfeld said her organization endorsed Heath Shuler, who handily beat Taylor last week.

“We think he is going to be a great champion for clean energy,” Sittenfeld said of Shuler. “He is concerned about global warming. I think he has a personal interest in protecting open space. We absolutely look forward to working with him.”

Sittenfeld said they spoke with Shuler before endorsing him. Flemming said WNC Alliance met with Shuler as well and was pleased.

“He told us he is very concerned about a lot of the things we are concerned about,” Flemming said.

It appears Shuler wasn’t simply pandering to environmental groups in hopes of winning votes but is genuinely concerned about the environment.

In an interview on National Public Radio the day after the election, Shuler cited the environment as an important issue for Democrats and in his region. The NPR reporter was grilling Shuler about his conservative stand on social issues, like abortion and gay marriage, and whether he would be at odds with the Democratic majority in Congress as a result.

“Although we may disagree on some of the social issues, one of the areas we have really come together on is the importance of protecting the environment,” Shuler responded. Shuler went on to call the proposed construction of a $600 million road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park “irresponsible spending.” He also cited the need to protect “God’s great creation” and to “be good stewards of our land.”

That was music to some conservationists’ ears.

“I think he recognizes what’s at stake in Western North Carolina as far as the environment,” said Chris Joyell with the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project.

One thing is clear with Shuler replacing Taylor: the proposal to build the 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Bryson City is dead, according to Joyell. Taylor was an advocate of the road and was constantly seeking money for it. Both Joyell and Flemming said their groups spent an inordinate amount of time, money and energy fighting the road.


Energy policy

Global warming tops the list of issues bound to get more attention under a new Congress, according to environmentalists.

“In the elections so many candidates ran campaigns about solving our energy problems,” Sittenfeld said. “We are very optimistic Congress will move forward with an aggressive plan to reduce global warming. The Bush Administration has not shown any real zest for doing anything about global warming. It seems like there is a new study every day showing the evidence of global warming happening far more quickly than we thought.”

The legislative line-up for the first week of the new Congress includes redirecting $12 billion in subsidies for the oil, gas and coal industry toward alternative energy development.

“Oil companies have been experiencing record profits; they clearly don’t need subsidies,” Sittenfeld said.


Who leads?

Despite the new Congress, President Bush has a great deal of unilateral power in shaping the nation’s environmental policy. He single-handedly reversed a ban on logging in the last remaining roadless areas of national forests. The ban was recently reinstated following a federal lawsuit waged by environmental groups.

The Bush Administration also loosened emission standards for coal power plants. Under the Clean Air Act, antiquated coal plants could not increase production without installing modern pollution technology. Bush reinterpreted the Clean Air Act, so coal plants could expand without coming into compliance. A lawsuit challenging Bush’s new take on the Clean Air Act was heard in the Supreme Court just two weeks ago, but has not been decided.

“Undoubtedly there will be a great effort on the Bush Administration’s part to do things administratively that they cannot get through Congress,” Irvin said. “It will be incumbent on the new leadership in Congress to hold the Bush Administration responsible and conduct meaningful oversight and make it clear that efforts to undermine environmental laws will not be tolerated. That alone should lay the ground work for making improvements.”

Congress has another option to keep Bush from reinterpreting environmental laws, said Avram Freidman, the executive director of the Sylva-based clean air advocacy group The Canary Coalition.

“Congress can introduce new legislation to clarify the mandate of the Clean Air Act,” Freidman said. “Congress itself has the ultimate power to write legislation.”

Congress could take steps to pass a bill codifying the so-called roadless rule instated during the Clinton era that bans logging in roadless areas in national forests.

“It is much more difficult to undermine the law,” Joyell said. “That eliminates the winds of an administration meddling with the rule every four years.”


Public (land) enemy

While Taylor’s defeat is considered a win for environmentalists, the most celebrated victory is the ousting of Rep. Richard Pombo of California, who chaired the House Natural Resources Committee.

Pombo was a key promoter of oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, along with new offshore drilling on protected coastlines. He spent the past two years pushing a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act. Joyell called Pombo “a foot soldier” for anti-environmental interests.

Taylor, meanwhile, chaired the appropriations subcommittee that oversaw the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. He was often criticized for under-funding the agencies.

“I really hope with Taylor no longer controlling the purse strings for the park service we are really hoping those agencies get the money they need to carry out their duties,” Joyell said.

Managing the federal government is such a big job that Congress relies on committees to vet legislation and decide what makes it to a vote and what doesn’t. For the past several years, committees dealing with the environment and natural resources were chaired by people like Pombo and Taylor.

“Since they have lost power and control at the committee level, I think they will have a much harder time trying to advance their agenda,” Joyell said of anti-environmental lobbyists.

“It is highly likely we are going to have very good committee chairs that are environmentally conscious,” said Freidman.

For example, one key environmental committee is likely to be chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, who sponsored the Clean Power Act that didn’t go anywhere during Republican leadership, Freidman said.


‘Not out of the woods’

Of course, the president could always veto anything Congress does. And there’s another problem. Bush appointees that oversee everything from the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Park Service are notoriously anti-environment, according to environmental groups.

“We are certainly not out of the woods by any means,” Flemming said.

“We may not see any real progress until 2009 when we have a new president,” Freidman added. “But we can lay the groundwork.”

Despite the air of optimism among environmentalists, it is unclear exactly where environmental issues will rank with the Democratic Congress. The legislative agenda cited by the new majority leaders includes fixing the war in Iraq, raising the minimum wage, improving the Medicare prescription drug plan, expanding income tax deductions for college tuition and rolling back tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

“This party has been out of power for so long it is going to be interesting to see how they handle it,” Joyell said

Freidman said now is the time to make sure environmental concerns get a seat at the table.

“This is a tremendous change in government, and it could mean a tremendous change in environmental policy, but it’s all going to depend on the message Congress gets from the public,” Freidman said. “I think this is a really important time for grassroots organizations to get the message out that environmental issues are a priority. If they sense that climate issue is important to the public, then climate change will be addressed. They have to hear from us now.”

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