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Of all of Barack Obama’s airy platitudes about change none were more vaporous than his platitudes about the environment and within that category Obama has had little at all to say about matters concerning public lands and endangered species. He is, it seems, letting his bureaucratic appointments do his talking for him. So now, five months into his administration, Obama’s policy on natural resources is beginning to take shape. It is a disturbingly familiar shape, almost sinister.
It all started with the man in the hat, Ken Salazar, Obama’s odd pick to head the Department of Interior. Odd because Salazar was largely detested in his own state, Colorado, by environmentalists for his repellent coziness with oil barons, the big ranchers and the water hogs. Odd because Salazar was close friends with the disgraced Alberto Gonzalez, the torturer’s consigliere. Odd because Salazar backed many of the Bush administration’s most rapacious assaults on the environment and environmental laws. Odder still because Salazar, in his new position as guardian of endangered species, had as a senator repeatedly advocated the weakening of the Endangered Species Act.
Salazar never hid his noxious positions behind a green mantle. Obama certainly knew what he was buying. And the president could have made a much different and refreshing choice by picking Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat, a Hispanic, a westerner and a true environmentalist who had helped to expose the cauldron of corruption inside the Bush Interior Department. Yes, Obama could have picked a western environmentalist; instead he tapped a prototypical western politician with deep ties to the water, oil, timber, ranching and mining industries. So the choice was deliberate and it presaged the deflating policies that are now beginning to stream out of his office, from siding with Sarah Palin against the polar bear to greenlighting dozens of Bush-era mountaintop removal mining operations across Appalachia. (As CounterPunch pointed out last fall, Obama and Palin have long since established symbiotic harmony on God’s Pipeline, the proposed $30 billion natural gas pipeline that, if constructed, will slice across the tundra and boreal forests from Prudhoe Bay through Canada to Chicago.)
Salazar wasted no time in turning the Interior Department office into a hive of his homeboys. This group of lawyers and former colleagues have already earned the nickname the Colorado Mafia, Version Three. It’s Version Three because Colorado Mafia Version One belonged to James Watt and his Loot-the-West zealots from the Mountain States Legal Fund. The Version Two update came in the form of Gale Norton and her own band of fanatics, some of whom remain embedded in the Department’s HQ, just down the hall from Salazar’s office.
Beyond a perverse obsession with Stetson hats, Salazar and Watt share some eerie resemblances. For starters, they look alike. There’s a certain fleshy smugness to their facial features. Who knows if Salazar shares Watt’s apocalyptic eschatology (Why save nature, Watt once quipped, when the end of the world is nigh.), but both men are arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway types. Watt’s insolent demeanor put him to the right even of his patron Ronald Reagan and ultimately proved his downfall. Salazar may well meet the same fate—if Obama, knock-on-wood, doesn’t nominate him for the next Supreme Court vacancy first. Most troubling, however, is the fact that both Watt and Salazar hold similar views on the purpose of the public estate, treating the national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands not as ecosystems but as living warehouses for the manufacture of stuff: lumber, paper, wedding rings, meat, energy.
With this stark profile in mind, it probably comes as no big shock that the man Salazar nominated to head the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with protecting native wildlife and enforcing the Endangered Species Act, has viewed those responsibilities with indifference if not hostility. For the past twelve years, Sam Hamilton, whose nomination to head the agency is now pending before congress, has run the Southeast Region of the Fish and Wildlife Service, a swath of the country that has the dubious distinction of driving more species of wildlife to the brink of extinction than any other.
From Florida to Louisiana, the encroaching threats on native wildlife are manifest and relentless: chemical pollution, oil drilling, coastal development, clearcutting, wetland destruction and a political animus toward environmental laws (and environmentalists). And Sam Hamilton was not one to stand up against this grim state of affairs.
A detailed examination of Hamilton’s tenure by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reveals his bleak record. During the period from 2004 through 2006, Hamilton’s office performed 5,974 consultations on development projects (clearcuts, oil wells, golf courses, roads, housing developments and the like) in endangered species habitat. But Hamilton gave the green light to all of these projects, except one. By contrast, during the same period the Rocky Mountain Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service officially consulted on 586 planned projects and issued 100 objections or so-called jeopardy opinions. Hamilton has by far the weakest record of any of his colleagues on endangered species protection.
There’s plenty of evidence to show that Hamilton routinely placed political considerations ahead of enforcing the wildlife protection laws. For example, in the agency’s Vero Beach, Florida office Fish and Wildlife Service biologists wrote a joint letter in 2005 complaining that their supervisors had ordered them not to object to any project in endangered species habitat—no matter how ruinous.
Take the case of the highly endangered Florida panther. One of Hamilton’s top lieutenants in Florida has been quoted as telling his subordinates that the big cat was a “zoo species” doomed to extinction and that to halt any developments projects in the panther’s habitat would be a waste of time and political capital.
“Under Sam Hamilton, the Endangered Species Act has become a dead letter,” says PEER’s Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the White House announcement on Hamilton touted his “innovative conservation” work. “Apparently, the word ‘no’ is not part of ‘innovative’ in Mr. Hamilton’s lexicon. To end the cycle of Endangered Species Act lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs a director who is willing to follow the law and actually implement the Act. Hamilton’s record suggests that he will extend the policies of Bush era rather than bring needed change.”
Now this man has the fate of the jaguar, grizzly and northern spotted owl in his compromised hands. Feel the chill?
Over at the Agriculture Department Obama made a similarly cynical pick when he chose former Iowa governor Tom Vilsak to head the agency that oversees the national forests. Vilsak resides to the right of Salazar and not just in the sitting arrangement at Cabinet meetings. He is a post-Harken Iowa Democrat, which means he’s essentially a Republican who believes in evolution six days a week. (He leaves such Midwestern heresies at the door on Sundays.) Think Earl Butz—minus the racist sense of humor (as far as we know).
Vilsak is a creature of industrial agriculture, a brusque advocate for the corporate titans that have laid waste the farmbelt: Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. As administrations come and go, these companies only tighten their stranglehold, poisoning the prairies, spreading their clones and frankencrops, sucking up the Oglalla aquifer, scalping topsoil and driving the small farmers under. It could have been different. Obama might have opted for change by selecting Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, food historian Michael Pollan or Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. Instead he opted for the old guard, a man with a test tube in one hand and Stihl chainsaw in the other.
Through a quirk of bureaucratic categorization, the Department of Agriculture is also in charge of the national forests. At 190 million acres, the national forests constitute the largest block of public lands and serve as the principal reservoir of biotic diversity and wilderness on the continent. They have also been under a near constant state of siege since the Reagan era: from clearcuts, mining operations, ORV morons, ski resorts and cattle and sheep grazing.
Since 1910, when public outrage erupted after President William Taft fired Gifford Pinchot for speaking out against the corrupt policies of Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger, the chief of the Forest Service had been treated as a civil service employee and, much like the director of the FBI and CIA, was considered immune from changes in presidential administrations. This all changed when Bill Clinton imperiously dismissed Dale Robertson as chief in 1994 and replaced him with Jack Ward Thomas, the former wildlife biologist who drafted Clinton’s plan to resume logging in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. Thomas’ tenure at the agency proved disastrous for the environment. In eight years of Clinton time, the Forest Service cut six times as much timber as the agency did under the Reagan and Bush I administrations combined. The pace of logging set by Thomas continued unabated during the Bush the Younger’s administration.
So now Vilsak has given the boot to Gail Kimbell, Bush’s compliant chief, and replaced her with a 32-year veteran of the agency named Tom Tidwell. Those were 32 of the darkest years in the Forest Service’s long history, years darkened by a perpetual blizzard of sawdust. You will search Google in vain for any evidence that during the forest-banging years of the Bush administration, when Tidwell served as Regional Forester for the Northern Rockies, this man ever once stood up to Kimbell or her puppetmaster Mark Rey, who went from being the timber industry’s top lobbyist to Bush’s Undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of the national forests. (Point of interest: Rey, once known as the Skeletor of the Timber Industry for the hundreds of thousands of acres of clearcuts on his rapsheet, has now been retained as a fixer by WildLaw, an environmental law firm in Alabama — retained without ever having issued a single mea culpa for his career as a top rank ecocider. You just can’t make this stuff up, anymore.) No, Tidwell was no whistleblower. He was, in fact, a facilitator of forest destruction, eagerly implementing the Kimbell-Rey agenda to push clearcuts, mines, oil wells and roads into the heart of the big wild of Montana and Idaho.
Despite this dismal resumé, Tidwell’s appointment received near unanimous plaudits, from timber companies, ORV user groups, mining firms and, yes, the Wilderness Society. Here’s the assessment of Cliff Roady director the Montana Forest Products Association, a timber industry lobby outfit: “His appointment keeps things on a fairly steady course. He reported to Gail Kimbell, and they worked together really well. He’s somebody we’d look forward to working with.”
And here, singing harmony, are the tweets of Bob Eckey, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, which some seasoned observers of environmental politics consider to be yet another timber industry lobby group: “Tidwell understands the American public’s vision for a national forest has been changing.”
During his tenure in Montana, Tidwell specialized in the art of coercive collaboration, a social manipulation technique that involves getting environmental groups to endorse destructive projects they would normally litigate to stop. Yet, when copiously lubricated with the magic words “collaboration” or “climate change” most environmentalists can be enticed to swallow even the most ghastly of clearcuts in the most ecologically sensitive sites, such as the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana to the fast-dwindling ponderosa pine forests of Oregon’s Blue Mountains.
One of Tidwell’s highest priorities will, it seems, be turn the national forests into industrial biomass farms, all in the name of green energy. Under this destructive scheme, forests, young and old alike, will be clearcut, not for lumber, but as fuel to be burned in biomass power generators. Already officials in the big timber states of Oregon and Washington are crowing that they will soon be able to become the “Saudi Arabia” of biomass production. Did they run this past Smokey the Bear?
Of course, Smokey, that global icon of wildfire suppression, and Tidwell will, no doubt, find common ground on another ecological dubious project: thinning and post-fire salvage logging. We’ve reached the point where old-fashioned timber sales are a thing of the past. Now every logging operation will an ecological justification — specious though they all certainly turn out to be.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the few green outfits to consistently stand up against Democratic Party-sponsored depredations on the environment, sued Tidwell at least 20 times during his time as regional forester in Missoula. There’s no record of Tidwell being sued even once by Boise-Cascade, Plum Creek Timber or the Noranda Gold Mining Company.
Yet by and large, the mainstream environmental movement has muzzled itself while the Obama administration stocks the Interior Department with corporate lawyers, extraction-minded bureaucrats and Clinton-era retreads. This strategy of a self-imposed gag order will only serve to enable Salazar and Vilsak to pursue even more rapacious schemes without any fear of accountability.
The pattern of political conditioning has been honed to perfection. Every few weeks the Obama administration will drop a few meaningless crumbs–such as the reinstitution of the Clinton Roadless Area rule—toward the enviro establishment, which will greedily gobble them up one after the other until, like Hansel and Gretel with groupthink, they find themselves hopelessly lost in a vast maze of Obama-sanctioned clearcuts. After that, they won’t even get a crumb.
On the environment, the transition between Bush and Obama has been disturbingly smooth when it should have been decisively abrupt.
Where will the administration meet its first roadblock? Who will erect it?
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.