The New Wild Order

The Bush administration has a plan to manage the nation's open spaces. But will America buy it?

Apr 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
DURING HIS campaign, Bush committed $4.9 billion toward fixing a backlog of maintenance problems—specifically with tourist attractions and highways—in the national parks. But not all protected federal lands will receive the same spit-and-polish attention. Most notably, the president.intends to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR (see "The Slippery North Slope," Dispatches, November 2000) to oil exploration. Environmentalists abhor drilling there not only because doing so would threaten a place sometimes called "America's Serengeti" for what the U.S. Geological Survey estimates is as little as five months' worth of oil, but because expanding petroleum consumption is exactly the wrong energy policy in a world increasingly endangered by global warming.

But Bush is skeptical that humans and their fossil-fuel use are responsible for what he has called the "slight" warming now under way. His view is hardly a surprise, given that he has spent most of his life in the oil business and still surrounds himself with former oil executives, including Vice-President Dick Cheney. Bush's complacency is contradicted, however, by dozens of reports from the scientists of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In late January, Bush used high natural-gas prices and the power-deregulation crisis in California to announce steps to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil—making it clear that legislation opening ANWR up to drilling would be the first order of business. (Critics pointed out that new Alaska oil would offer no relief to California's straining grid.) "Americans love the outdoors, but they also love heated homes and driving their cars," says Utah's James Hansen.

The Senate's second-ranking Democrat scoffs at Hansen's suggestion that the environmental impact of exploration can be lessened with advanced slant-drilling techniques. "There's about as much chance of them drilling in the Alaska refuge as there is of me doing a back flip off this chair," says Senator Harry Reid from Nevada. "I don't think they can get 50 votes for it, and I guarantee they can't get [the] 60" needed to override a Democratic filibuster.

Hansen also favors Bush's plan to overturn Clinton's policies on forests and monuments, complaining that Clinton put Western lands off-limits without consulting those most affected by his decisions. "You have to consult with the local people who live there, who raise their kids there," he says, "and not just assume that you're smarter than those people and hand down the process by fiat from Washington."

Mike Bader of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies says reversing the roadless forest rule won't be easy. It would "require new public comment periods, a new Federal Register rule, and probably public hearings—there would be a lot to undo," says Bader. Still, as this story went to press, the first legal attack on the policy was already underway in Alaska.

Gale Norton swore under oath that she would enforce the nation's environmental laws. But Bush received substantial campaign contributions from the oil, timber, and minerals industries, and their spokespersons have applauded his environmental agenda.

"You have to realize that every corporate lobbyist in Washington is going to their clients saying, ŒWe've got Republicans running the Congress and White House, and that's likely to last only two years, so we'd better get what we want right away,'" explains Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "But I'm not sure Bush can perceive there's a huge political danger here. For all the talk about this being such an experienced Cabinet, it's filled with people who have been out of the political forefront for eight years, including Dick Cheney, who was not here in Washington to see how Newt [Gingrich] got his head handed to him when he tried to gut environmental laws in 1995."

"There are political risks here," concedes Steve Hayward. "But I do think Bush is genuine when he says he wants environmental progress."

But will Bush be able to convince America that green policies based on takings theory, environmental federalism, and corporate self-auditing are the ticket? The challenge would be imposing under any circumstances; it is doubly so for a president whose legitimacy is doubted by many and who faces a gridlocked Congress. For now, all that's clear is that the coming battles will be ferocious and carry the highest of stakes, both for Bush's presidency and the planet.


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