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By the end of Reagan’s second term, the big environmental organizations were well-pickled in the political brine of Washington, with freshness and passion drained out.
Early in the 1988 campaign of George H. W. Bush, the Texas transplant attempted to distance himself from the environmental ethos of Reagan, who had said that if you saw one redwood tree you had seen them all. Bush’s strategy of revision was due mainly to the political instincts of Lee Atwater, who closely scrutinized polling data showing that support for green causes cut across class lines: over 70 percent of the voters wanted more governmental action to protect environmental quality.
Thus, Bush proudly claimed that he intended to be the “environmental president.” He went after Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts and the Democratic nominee, over the dismal condition of Boston Harbor. Bush pledged to support the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, including new provisions aimed at controlling acid rain, and to take firm action to curb global warming. He actively promoted a plan for “no net loss of wetlands.”
Soon after his decisive election, Bush followed up these promises by appointing William Reilly, the first professional environmentalist to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Reilly had been executive director of the Conservation Foundation, a staid environmental outfit founded by Laurence Rockefeller in 1948 to advance nature-friendly partnerships between government and industry.
“I don’t care about the regulations, I want results,” became Reilly’s pragmatic mantra at EPA. In practice this meant that Reilly preferred consent decrees to punitive fines and criminal litigation, and voluntary compliance by toxic industries instead of mandatory standards for emissions. Reilly was also entranced by the notion that economic incentives could replace compulsory regulations for achieving improvements in air and water quality.
Reilly’s primary mission at EPA was to convince his former cohort of environmental executives to get on board the Bush administration’s corporate-friendly overhaul of the Clean Air Act. For help, Reilly turned to Bush’s favorite environmental group: the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a more svelte and modish version of Reilly’s old Conservation Fund, stocked with lawyers, lobbyists and scientists.
Nurtured on generous infusions of corporate grants and donations, EDF (now called Environmental Defense) matured into one of the most influential environmental groups in Washington. Their operations were directed by Fred Krupp for the brawny sum of $125,000 a year. Krupp was known in some circles as the Michael Milken of the green movement, an allusion to the EDF supremo’s tireless promotion of the “pollution trading credits” scheme, which allows industrial enterprises to sell their right to spew toxins to other companies through the Chicago Board of Trade.
Waggish environmentalists dubbed Krupp’s pollution credits “cancer bonds.” For his part, Krupp didn’t have much use for environmental activism, which he saw as tarnishing the reputation of “serious” environmental groups. Krupp liked to proclaim that “what the environmental movement needs is more scientists and engineers and economists.” He preferred to work with such allies of the earth as McDonalds and General Motors, companies which are cordial to the idea that market mechanisms and technology can resolve nearly every environmental dilemma.
It was precisely these kinds of voluntary and market-oriented approaches which had attracted Reilly and Bush to Krupp in the first place. The whole scheme was laid out in a milestone white paper on so-called free-market environmentalism called “Project 88,” which EDF helped to write for Senators John Heinz, the ketchup heir from Pennsylvania, and Tim Wirth, the Democrat from Colorado. This document argued that environmental regulations were financial onerous and often counter-productive. Hurt business, stifle economic growth, Heinz, Wirth and Krupp asserted, and you deflate corporate interest in protecting environmental quality. Such notions derive from the belief that environmentalism is a luxury concern toward which Americans turn their attention only in times of booming prosperity. The rhetoric of this fake construct is that the best way to protect wildlands, air quality and endangered species is to keep big business running in overdrive.
That such ideas took root in an era that saw a steady accretion of environmental catastrophes?from Three Mile Island and Love Canal to Times Beach, Bhopal and Chernobyl; from the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species and the decimation of commercial fish stocks on both coasts to the wreck of the Exxon Valdez?shows how thoroughly accustomed the mainstream greens had become to the enervated political climate of Washington, D. C. Groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and Environmental Defense Fund had lent credence to the notion that environmental quality was a secondary value, that the right to safe drinking water, clean air and functioning ecosystems could be compromised and mediated.
“Project ‘88” became a biblical text for Reilly, and many of its key provisions later resurfaced in the renovated Clean Air Act. Heinz was killed in a plane crash in 1991 and a heft chunk of his large estate went to create the Heinz Foundation, which continues to funnel millions of dollars into green groups that show an understanding deference to the sensitivities of corporations.
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The anti-regulatory fervor of the Reagan era continued to thrived unabated in the Bush administration. One particularly anti-environmental voice was Bush’s budget director, Richard Darman, who recklessly slashed spending for national park land acquisitions and hazardous waste cleanups. “Americans did not fight and win the wars of the 20th century to make the world safe for green vegetables,” Darman thundered in a notorious lecture at Harvard University. In lighter language Darman’s boss, George Bush, lashed out at broccoli, on the grounds that he had been force-fed the vegetable as a child.
Meanwhile, over in the vice president’s office, Dan Quayle was running the White House Council on Competitiveness, a relay station for the complaints of corporate America about the profit-stifling nature of environmental rules. The Competitiveness Council was staffed by a young lawyer from Indiana called David McIntosh, subsequently elected to Congress in 1994, whose primary function was to scrutinize all new federal regulations with an eye toward how much each might impair the operations of big business. “We’re here to listen to the concerns of industry,” McInosh confessed. “The environmentalists have got the EPA as an audience for their complaints.”
A typical example of the Council’s chivalrous defense of picked upon corporations is the case of the Louisiana black bear, an especially rare species that inhabits the backwoods swamps and bayous of the Mississippi Delta. On learning that the US Fish and Wildlife Service might list the imperiled bear as a threatened species, Louisiana-Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific asked Dan Quayle’s anti-regulatory shop to intervene, arguing that the protection of the bear would prove a financial hardship to these multi-billion dollar transnational companies. The Council leapt into action. The listing of the bear was delayed for more than two years, while the timber barons clearcut some of the last remnants of the bear’s habitat.
Over at the Department of the Interior, now under the control of Manuel Lujan, the pro-development demeanor of the agency was only moderately less aggressive than during the frenzied years of Watt and his gang. Lujan was a former right-wing congressman from New Mexico with deep ties to the ranching and mining industries. He pushed relentless to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, continued Watt’s drive to accelerate exploratory drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, and furiously resisted attempts to charge market prices for cattle grazing on public lands, which during Lujan’s tenure amounted to $200 million a year in subsidies to such impoverished public land ranchers as Hewlett-Packard and agribusiness magnate J. R. Simplot.
Under instructions from Bush, Lujan ordered the Bureau of Land Management to fast track the purchase of the Goldstrike Mine by Barrick Resources, a Toronto-based company controlled by financier Peter Munk. The way thus lubricated, Barrick acquired the 1,800 acre gold mine near Elko, Nevada, for the princely sum of $9,500. By the time the mine is shuttered, the Goldstrike will yield an estimated $10 billion in gold. In 1995, in consideration for his favors, George Bush was invited to join Barrick’s board of advisers.
Lujan became the first Interior Secretary to mount a head-on challenge to the Endangered Species Act. Lujan desperately sought to permit timber companies in Oregon to clearcut ancient forest inhabited by the Northern Spotted Owl, which had been listed as a threatened species over the Bush administration’s objections. The Interior Secretary furiously fought the court-ordered listing of the owl, fuming: “If we’ve got a species, I don’t see why we have to save a sub-species like the Northern Spotted Owl. Maybe these sub-species aren’t meant to survive. Maybe they just can’t adapt to their new surroundings.”
In a desperate effort to override the Endangered Species Act’s prohibition against logging the owl’s old-grown habitat, Lujan invoked the so-called God Squad, a death panel of Bush administration appointees which could vote to “sanction” activities leading to the extinction of protected species. Lujan’s God Squad approved the clearcuts, but its action was later overturned by a federal court.
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Lujan didn’t ride into these fraught battles alone. He had plenty of help from the Democratic side of the aisle. Lujan’s most powerful ally was the Washington Democrat Tom Foley, who hailed from the Inland Empire in the eastern part of the state. While serving as Speaker of the House in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Foley was the principal architect of the anti-environmental policies streaming out of the Congress for more than a decade. First as chair of the powerful House Agriculture Committee and later as one of the most autocratic speakers in the history of the House, Foley shamelessly shilled for the timber, mining, aluminum and defense industries, which stocked his campaign war chest with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Foley’s legacy of destruction is written across the landscape of the Northwest: radioactive contamination at the Hanford Nuclear Site; destroyed wildlands in Idaho and Montana; numerous endangered species put in extreme jeopardy, headlined by the Northern Spotted Owl, hundreds of stocks of Pacific salmon and the grizzly bear.
As speaker of the House, Foley assigned key committee chairs to pliable members and dictated the legislative agenda of the House, determining which bills received votes and which languished despite broad popular support.
One of Foley’s biggest and most reliable campaign donors was the Plum Creek Timber Company, a limited partnership which owned 2.1 million acres of timber and was the second largest exporter of raw logs to Japan, China and Korea. Foley voraciously defended Plum Creek’s interests from attacks launched within his own party caucus by Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio and Rep. Pat Williams from Montana, who wanted to stem the flow of log exports and save 20,000 millworker jobs in the Pacific Northwest. Foley threatened to sanction the impudent congressmen and retaliated by refusing to the bring legislation they had sponsored to the floor.
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As the Bush administration staggered to a close, many high-profile environmental issues, from the fates of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, remained gridlocked. But a quiet, vital change had taken place. The core ideas of conservation and protection, that a strong federal regulatory system represented the best way to protect the American environment, was being steadily refuted by the leaders of the environmental movement itself.
Many of the old environmental heroes had moved on to strange new positions. William Ruckleshaus assumed the post of CEO at Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation’s largest solid waste company, and was invited to sit on the boards of timber giant Weyerhaeuser and Monsanto, the agro-chemical company. Lee Thomas, one of Ruckleshaus’ successors at EPA, found an especially remunerative position as an executive in the Atlanta headquarters of convicted federal income tax cheat Georgia-Pacific. Gaylord Nelson, father of Earth Day, joined the board of the Wilderness Society. Donald Ross and Dennis Hayes abandoned the environmental movement for more lucrative positions in corporate philanthropy. The promiscuous Bob Packwood traveled the backroads of rural Oregon trying to salvage his disgraced career by calling for the repeal of the Endangered Species Act. Corporate criminal Louisiana-Pacific (which pleaded guilty to 16 felonies and misdemeanors involving timber fraud) served as a proud sponsor of the 25th anniversary celebration of Earth Day.
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 published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank.