Public Property: Keep Out!

Clinton tries to create a conservation legacy by guarding wilderness from miners, loggers—and Congress

Mar 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

It was about as effusive as the New York Times can get over a lame duck president. Last fall, under headlines such as "A Forest Legacy" and "Monuments for Posterity," a series of editorials lauded Bill Clinton for his "bold" and "breathtaking" late-term action on environmental issues. Specifically, the editorials referred to two executive orders that the president either has invoked or intends to invoke, and which, taken together, may qualify as the biggest conservation coup since Teddy Roosevelt created 200 million acres of public land between 1905 and 1909. "For someone who paid no attention to environmental issues during his first year in office," the Times wrote, "Clinton may wind up with an impressive legacy as a preservationist."

High praise, to be sure—but no less exceptional than what Clinton is attempting to do with his executive orders. Last October, he invoked the National Forest Management Act—an obscure provision created in 1976 that enables the president to issue directives to the U.S. Forest Service—to prohibit any new roads from being built in parts of the national forest that are presently roadless. By making commercial development in these lands virtually impossible, the scheme—which must undergo a gamut of public hearings that will last until the end of this year—could create a 50 million acre patchwork of protected forest, an area the size of Virginia and West Virginia combined.

It was also last autumn that Clinton explored the idea of using the Antiquities Act of 1906—which allows a president to protect public lands from development by designating them national monuments—to create as many as a dozen new monument sites in the West. Since then, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has been barnstorming all over the West visiting proposed areas and soliciting public comment. The candidates could include sites from the Otay Mountains in southern California to the majestic South Quinault Ridge in Washington.

Both plans, of course, must still survive the test of presidential politics, yet pundits are already identifying Clinton's land campaign as one of his most significant legislative achievements. And in at least one respect, they're correct: Regardless of whether these initiatives succeed or fail, credit lies exclusively with the White House, which has fashioned an unorthodox strategy for thwarting Congress. Through his executive acts, the president hopes to circumvent a Congress that is deliberately uncooperative on environmental issues. By so doing, however, Clinton has antagonized powerful Republican politicians who are allied with timber and mining bigwigs, and who now accuse the president of undermining the very foundations of democracy.

The hyperbole has been impressive. In October, several western Republicans characterized the president's "Great Western Land Grab" as an unseemly bid to satisfy his libidinous need for an environmental legacy. Soon thereafter, Representative Jim Hansen, a Republican from Utah, opined that "Democracy isn't always pretty, but I think we can all agree it is a lot better than having a king dictate everything from the White House." By December, presidential hopeful Senator John McCain had entered the fray, blasting Clinton's executive action as "the epitome of federal arrogance."

Although the Republicans may be serving Mammon more than John Q. Public, curiously, they do have a point. In order to bypass Congress, Clinton has resorted to a scheme with an unsettling similarity to the semantic contortions of the Lewinsky affair (To wit: It depends on what your definition of "environment" is). The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, requires the president to secure congressional approval before designating any piece of federal land as wilderness, a label that grants it the highest level of protection. So Clinton has proposed the creation of a new designation with only slightly less regulatory heft—near-wilderness—which would not require Congress's blessing. It must also be acknowledged that the administration's record with environmental executive action is hardly a model of soliciting public input. In September 1996, Clinton invoked the Antiquities Act to create the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, enraging many locals and politicians who felt—with some justification—that they were not adequately consulted.

Admitting that Clinton's foes have a point, however, isn't the same thing as saying that they're right. In fact, the Republicans' expressions of outraged shock and indignation are not only disingenuous, but profoundly hypocritical. The main reason the president has resorted to unilateral action is that Congress has repeatedly refused to consider similar legislation itself, and has sabotaged several of his previous efforts at conservation —despite numerous polls indicating that Americans overwhelmingly favor environmental protection. Moreover, GOP umbrage loses much of its moral force, considering the efforts of congressional representatives to weaken environmental law through back-door tactics such as anti-environmental riders, last-minute amendments to bills. In recent riders, Republican senators have taken steps to permit more logging in national forests, proposed allowing mining companies to dump thousands of tons of waste on federal land, and tried to block the government from collecting millions of dollars in fines from power companies that violate clean-air laws.

Ultimately, what is perhaps most ironic about this skirmish is that it comes at a time when populist muscle has actually been most successful in effecting environmental policy. In the '98 elections, some 170 preservationist ballot initiatives were passed across the country. And at the nearly 180 local public hearings already held by the Forest Service to discuss the roadless initiative, there has been enormous public support. Republicans may be lamenting the alleged subversion of the democratic process, but the people are shouting to be heard. It's just that they're often drowned out by the din of partisan yelping.

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