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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Public Lands Move Ends Clinton's Environmental Honeymoon

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Tom Kenworthy of the Washington Post about the political fallout of President Clinton's decision to remove Federal land-use reforms from his budget. The move was made to appease western Democratic senators, but it prompted cries of betrayal by environmentalists.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

The honeymoon is over on Pennsylvania Avenue. That's what many environmentalists are saying after the White House's recent announcement that two key environmental reforms would be dropped from President Clinton's budget: royalties for minerals taken from Federal lands, and higher fees for grazing livestock on Federal property. Officially the White House says the matters have merely been put on hold, in order to curry the votes of Western senators for the President's economic package, and that the fees would be imposed later. But a number of activists have said they feel betrayed by the move.

With us now is Tom Kenworthy, who covers environmental and natural resource issues for the Washington Post . Tom, What happened? Why the abrupt about-face?

KENWORTHY: Well, what happened is pretty simple politics. Senator Max Baucus of Montana, who's a Democrat from Montana, and several of his Democratic colleagues convinced the Administration that a combination of higher fees on mining, timber and grazing was going to be too much for the economies of the West, and the Administration in turn decided that they needed the votes of those Senators to get the budget through.

CURWOOD: But what about the politics? I mean, now, Bruce Babbitt had been running around saying we're gonna have these fees, they're gonna be in the budget, and suddenly he looks up the next day and I gather he reads about it in the newspaper that this is what's happening.

KENWORTHY: I think he may have gotten a little bit more warning than that but he certainly didn't get very much. Secretary Babbitt had begun to be pretty outspoken on these issues, and there's quite a feeling that he got the rug pulled out from under him.

CURWOOD: So why is that? Why not at least consult with him?

KENWORTHY: That's an interesting question and I wish I knew the answer to it. I think they did tend to look at it as a minor fiscal matter rather than a question of sort of fundamental policy, that these changes have been sought by environmentalists for many years, and they saw the advent of the Clinton administration as a chance to get some really fundamental reform in land use in the West, and so that's probably why you have the reaction. I think Secretary Babbitt is certainly going to live on to fight another day on this. He's got a lot of
stature and a lot of respect within the Administration.

CURWOOD: What's the reaction among the folks on Capitol Hill and the environmental lobbyists who care about this? What about George Miller, for example, he's chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee -- how did he respond to this?

KENWORTHY: George Miller was very angry, and when George Miller gets angry you know about it. His attitude is that he and some of his Western Democrats, some of them from states like Montana who have big constituencies out there in these industries, that they took a tough vote and they took it for nothing because the White House cut a deal with the Senate, and I think Congressman Miller's attitude is, if they're going to pursue things like mining law reform, they're going to have to get it through the Senate first and the White House is going to have to push hard for it.

CURWOOD: So the President has burned some bridges in the House?

KENWORTHY: Yeah, well, he -- yeah, they may not be totally down but he set a fire over there.

CURWOOD: If some folks in the House are upset with the President, seems that some environmentalists are enraged. Jay Hair from the National Wildlife Federation, he had some pretty strong rhetoric; what did he say -- it's gone from a honeymoon to date rape, this decision? What's the political fallout going to be in the environmental community for the President, do you think?

KENWORTHY: Well, I think this is going to be quite interesting to watch. The environmentalists were very, very supportive, as you know, of the Clinton/Gore ticket in the campaign, and ever since the election they've had very high hopes. They've gotten a lot of appointments they like very much. So I guess that exacerbated their frustration at this. The good news for the environmentalists is they never even got a date with the previous crowd.

CURWOOD: All right, now let's look ahead. The White House is a bit surprised by all this -- what are they going to do next?

KENWORTHY: Well, the White House has said that this is not a change in policy, it's a change in process, and that both administratively and through legislation, they can get these things later on and that one of the interesting things about this will be to see how hard the White House pushes. On the grazing fees, Secretary Babbitt has planned all along to do that administratively, and he's going to hold a series of hearings out West beginning the end of this month. Mining law's a little bit more complicated, it requires legislation, and it's harder to get standing alone than if it was wrapped up into a big budget bill, and I think the environmentalists and some of the members of the House are going to say, this is a big test for the White House and they've really got to get behind this.

CURWOOD: Below-cost timber sales invoke the same principle, that is, instead of giving away common wealth the people should pay for it. The President made a strong appearance in Portland. How do you think the issue of below-cost timber sales is now going to fare, given this move on mining and on grazing?

KENWORTHY: I think achieving what the environmentalists would call reform of below-cost timber sales is a little more problematic. There's generally more political out West for cutting timber on our national forests, there's a lot of forests in a lot of Congressional districts and a lot of jobs depend on it. It's a tougher argument and I'd be very surprised if they got that this year.

CURWOOD: The knock on Clinton during the Democratic primary campaign was that he was the least environmental of all the candidates. What do suppose his actions today tell us about him?

KENWORTHY: Well, I think Clinton's a complicated man, and this is going to be a complicated story over the next four years. I think what you saw in his performance in Portland was to some extent an attempt to find common ground between people who've been fighting for years, and that is not an issue that you can just cut the baby in half. I think some of these issues are going to be tough for him, but I think his appointments please the environmentalists, he's got Vice President Gore there, I don't think you can judge his environmental record based on just the past couple of weeks.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you. Tom Kenworthy writes about the environment and natural resources issues for the Washington Post.

KENWORTHY: Thank you for having me.



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