Presidential Timber

Will Al Gore's green vision lead him to the Oval Office? Knock on wood.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
IF GORE HAD BEEN in his West Wing office on July 28, 1995, he would have heard the growl of 21 chainsaws just beyond the White House gates. The Sierra Club and other green groups were leading a mock salute to the Rescissions Bill, signed into law by Bill Clinton the day before—a piece of compromise legislation that included the infamous "salvage rider," which gave regional foresters the go-ahead to sell precious stands of old-growth trees to timber companies without public comment. Clinton had vetoed the bill once, and though Gore had implored him to veto it again, the president signed it the second time, in part because he was still testing the waters with the new GOP Congress.

"The salvage rider was the bottom," says the Sierra Club's Carl Pope. "That was the nadir."

The Clinton administration had started out with fervent support from the Group of Ten, which includes the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the World Wildlife Fund. And from the outset, Gore drove the White House's environmental agenda, snagging cabinet posts for like-minded colleagues such as Carol Browner, his former legislative director, who became head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and his old House and Senate colleague Tim Wirth, who was put in charge of environmental policy at the State Department. He also nudged along Bruce Babbitt's successful bid for Secretary of the Interior.

But in the administration's opening months, Gore helped green-light proposals to raise the rates ranchers pay to graze cattle on public rangeland, as well as mining fees. The provisions raised hackles throughout the Rocky Mountain states, and two Senate Democrats—Montana's Max Baucus and Colorado's Ben Nighthorse Campbell—led the opposition. The proposals were abruptly removed from the budget. Blow number one for Gore and the greens.

The vice-president was also trying to make environmental issues a priority in Clinton's first major economic package. If we're going to raise taxes to lower the deficit, Gore in effect proposed, let's do it in an innovative way that will help the environment. He began by attempting to sell Senate Democratic leaders on a "BTU tax," a levy assessed on energy consumption that would, in Gorespeak, "incentivize" businesses to stop using so much electricity and fuel. The Senate, not yet under GOP control, rejected the BTU approach as too bold and too complicated, and in October 1993 it instituted a 4.3 percent gasoline tax instead. Blow number two.

"The first two and a half years, the relationship was much more troublesome," Pope says of Clinton's and Gore's early attempts at reform. "They would toss things out there and then drop them." Inside the administration, appointees who left green groups to work for the White House were tongue-tied when they tried to explain such decisions to their old friends in the advocacy community. George Frampton, a former president of the Wilderness Society who is now the acting chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, acknowledges that executive-branch decision-makers were in disarray: "The strategy was, at the first sign of hostile fire, take the flag down and bury it in the basement."

But nothing unites political allies like a common enemy, and in 1994 the American people gave the green groups and the administration a big one: the GOP-controlled Congress, led by Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America revolutionaries. Using public-opinion data compiled by his green allies, the vice-president was able to convince campaign strategist Dick Morris that the environment was an issue the White House could use against the GOP. Morris helped to come up with a mantra to remind voters of the favored government programs that Gingrich's Contract with America forces would harm, recalls Katie McGinty, a former Gore Senate staffer who was running the White House Office of Environmental Policy at the time but has since returned to private law practice. "Medicaid, Medicare, education, and the environment," McGinty recites. "It's still music to my ears."

According to Robert Kennedy Jr., Gore played a crucial role in keeping green leaders' spirits up and making environmental issues a key part of the White House counterattack. "He said, 'You have to hold firm. These issues are real, and they're going to come back. You have to stick with us on this.' He really rallied the troops."

By the end of summer 1995, the president confronted more appropriations bills in a succession of omnibus spending packages, many of which had deal-breaking environmental provisions buried within them. Three times, Clinton stared down the Republicans over bills he wouldn't sign, even though his refusal meant that no federal money would be available to pay civil servants. The government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996 were the result of over-our-dead-bodies green causes: the opening of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil-company drills and a government-wide review of all established environmental regulations to see if the costs outweighed the benefits. Clinton finally signed, but only after the devastating environmental contingencies were removed.

The unpopular government shutdowns, a burgeoning economy, and a Bob Dole campaign that was going nowhere ensured that, by September 1996, the Clinton-Gore comeback was nearly complete. That month, the president, egged on by Gore and other administration greens, enraged Utah Republicans by creating the vast Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. But the move played well with the electorate, and in November Clinton and Gore won a decisive victory and a second term.


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