Bush smiles at environment, but teeth are fangs

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AUTHOR: Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Columnist

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OLYMPIA — The Bush administration picked a sunny day, with the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge as a bracing photo backdrop, to put a smiling face on its controversial environmental policies.

The face belonged to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who at her appearance yesterday linked President Bush with the Republicans’ greatest conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt, and peppered her remarks with references to “communication,” “consultation” and “cooperation.”

Norton did, however, flash the drill-bit teeth of Bush energy policies. She delivered a lengthy defense of the administration’s plan to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, greatest of the nation’s bird and animal sanctuaries.

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In fact, Norton called the Arctic Refuge “one of the most environmentally appropriate places we can look for energy.” Why? Because of all the things that can be done “in a high-tech way” to protect it.

Congress has yet to approve drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Six Republican senators recently signed a letter saying they won’t be part of any effort to sneak it through in a spending bill without open debate.

Yet, Bush’s proposed budget assumed $2.4 billion in revenue from the first oil lease sale in the Alaska preserve.

The Republican Party learned — painfully — in the 1990s that the environment can be a new third rail in American politics. President Clinton played against the perceived extremism of House Speaker Newt Gingrich in cruising to re-election in 1996.

GOP leaders in Congress continue to be a bunch of unabashed Bambi-bashers.

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Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has referred to the Environmental Protection Agency as a “Gestapo bureaucracy.”

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., tapped to head the House Resources Committee, has tried to gut the Endangered Species Act and described ESA as a “tool of the environmental movement to lock up lands.”

No way will such hyperbole be heard out of the Bush administration.

Watching Norton yesterday was Jim DiPeso, policy director of REP America, a national grass-roots outfit of Republicans in the Roosevelt (and John McCain) tradition who favor environmental protection.

“They’ve learned from the Gingrich years,” DiPeso reflected. “They’re not as brazen as Gingrich or as clownish as James Watt.” Watt was the Reagan-era Interior secretary who boasted that he didn’t like to paddle and didn’t like to walk.

Instead, this administration goes about its business by stealth, misdirection and holiday-eve rule-making.

As an example, Norton boasted that the president proposes to fully fund at $900 million the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to support federal, state and local conservation and recreation programs.

Within that proposal, however, the Bush budget has slashed by 80 percent the U.S. Forest Service’s budget to acquire critical private land for wildlife habitat and recreation.

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During his last year in Congress, GOP Sen. Slade Gorton secured $10 million to support the Cascade Conservation Partnership, an effort to buy up privately owned forestland in the Central Cascades. More than 16,000 citizens have given $14 million in private funding to the effort.

How much does the new Bush budget contain for this successful public-private partnership? Not a penny.

At Nisqually yesterday, Norton stood atop a rickety viewing platform that will be replaced thanks to a modest $25.5 million budget increase that Bush has proposed for the 540-unit national wildlife refuge system. The Nisqually Refuge will also be able to put in fencing to keep cows out of estuary land important to juvenile chinook salmon.

Inside the refuge headquarters, however, is a comprehensive plan that calls for tearing down dikes to restore 699 acres of marine estuary habitat, as well as virtually double the size of the refuge.

While it provides dollars for better maintenance, the president’s fiscal year 2004 budget requests no money for implementing Nisqually’s ambitious plan.

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A former Colorado attorney general, Norton drew fire from environmental groups when picked two years ago as the Bush administration’s chief federal lands manager.

She won a key character reference, however, from Washington’s Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire. Gregoire described Norton as open and open-minded from working with her on cleanup of federal nuclear sites and states’ lawsuits against the tobacco industry.

A bit of that openness was displayed yesterday.

Norton endorsed efforts by conservationists and local residents to clear away old dams and weirs on Icicle Creek as it passes the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. The goal is to restore prime spawning habitat in one of the master streams of the Eastern Cascades.

“We have some funding for that in our new budget,” Norton said. She described efforts to restore the Icicle as “a very worthwhile project.”

On other matters, however, Norton hews the line as a careful loyalist.

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During a van trip across the Nisqually Refuge, an Olympia reporter wanted to know if Norton supports to plan to breach dikes and restore salt-water wetlands.

“A secretary can get into a lot of trouble making promises,” she joked.

Asked why Bush’s budget zeroes out land acquisition in the Cascades, Norton replied: “That was not part of my department’s budget and I cannot comment in detail on that.”

Chris Gregoire ought to call up her old friend and fill in some details.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or [email protected]

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