Failing Nature


George W. Bush’s environmental record can be summed up in one simple word: devastating.

Not only has President Bush gutted numerous environmental laws — including the Clean Air and Water Acts — he has also set a new precedent by disregarding the world’s top scientists and the Pentagon, whose concerns about the rate of global warming grow graver by the day.

As Mark Townsend and Paul Harris reported for the UK Observer in February 2004, “[The Pentagon report] predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water, and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents.”

Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even admits that climate change is being exacerbated by American’s consumptive culture. “What has changed in the last few hundred years is the additional release of carbon dioxide by human activities,” the EPA admits. “Fossil fuels burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses, and power factories are responsible for about 98% of US carbon dioxide emissions, 24% of methane emissions, and 18% of nitrous oxide emissions. Increased agriculture, deforestation, landfills, industrial production, and mining also contribute a significant share of emissions. In 1997, the United States emitted about one-fifth of total global greenhouse gases.”

It was easy for Bush to back out of the Kyoto Protocol when Al Gore and Bill Clinton undermined the agreement in the late 1990s. “Signing the Protocol, while an important step forward, imposes no obligations on the United States. The Protocol becomes binding only with the advice and consent of the US Senate,” Gore said at the time. “As we have said before, we will not submit the Protocol for ratification without the meaningful participation of key developing countries in efforts to address climate change.” Sadly, Gore stood by his promise.

Although Kyoto was a gigantic step forward in addressing global warming, the Democratic Party collectively opposed the watered down version of the Protocol. They did so to avoid alienating their labor base, who worried that new environmental laws would shift jobs to developing nations with weaker environmental regulations. Hence Kyoto’s derailment and the Democrats failed challenge to Bush’s misdeeds.

Grim Appointments

Around the same time that Bush crushed Kyoto, he nominated Gale Norton to be his Secretary of the Interior, a position which oversees approximately one-fifth of all US land. “As Colorado’s attorney general in the mid ’90s, she chalked up a scandalous record: looking the other way in the face of damaging pollution, dragging her feet on prosecuting big business, even challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to override state law,” James Ridgeway wrote for The Village Voice in February 2001. “When a gold mine spilled cyanide into a local river, killing all aquatic life along a 17-mile stretch, Norton declined to press criminal charges and stalled so badly the feds stepped in. In another spectacular case, she testified against her own citizens, siding with a big corporation that fouled the air.

“Norton was trained for the role as interior secretary in the saber-rattling libertarian wing of the Republican Party. She climbed the ladder from former interior chief James Watts’ Mountain States Legal Foundation through the Hoover Institution to the Reagan administration. Back in Colorado, she immersed herself in pure libertarian politics at the Political Economy Research Center. Along the way, she became ensconced in the property rights network, from the Sagebrush Rebellion of the Reagan era to today’s militant Wise Use Movement and the rock-ribbed Defenders of Property Rights.”

And yet the majority of Senate Democrats, including Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and California’s Dianne Feinstein, supported Norton’s grim appointment despite their power to obstruct her confirmation.

Dirty Energy

With that kind of opposition, it is little wonder why Bush had no qualms about moving forward with his dirty energy plan, which became known as the “Energy Policy Act of 2003.” Bush’s bill called for a slash in renewable energy funding and an increase in fossil fuel consumption. The bill, authored by Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force, met with a reported 39 oil lobbyists and executives to draft the legislation.

Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer rights watchdog group Public Citizen, wrote of Enron’s corrupt involvement in the writing of the bill:

“[Enron] was one of the most aggressive proponents of natural gas and electricity deregulation and was the most influential player in developing Bush’s energy policy. Sorting out this tangled web of political influence, greed, deceit, and corporate hubris will take hundreds of lawyers, dozens of congressional committee hearings, and multiple investigations by law enforcement agencies … Vice President Dick Cheney met privately with Lay to discuss the formulation of the administration’s energy plan, from which Lay stood to benefit enormously. The Bush administration has refused to release the records of the meeting and other deliberations of its energy task force, even in the face of congressional demands.”

Over 30 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted in favor of Bush’s legislation, while eight others decided not cast a vote on the measure, which ultimately passed effortlessly through the House. The Senate Democrats stepped up their opposition, halting the bill. Ultimately, they came back with a horrid version of their own, which 36 Democrats, including ranking leaders such as Senator Tom Daschle, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, and John Edwards of North Carolina, voted for.

Offering few variations from the Task Force’s original draft, the Democratic version set aside almost $2 billion for big coal companies and $1 billion in tax breaks for nuclear power expansion in addition to over $5 billion in hand-outs and tax cuts for the oil industry.

The bill also earmarked over $20 billion for the building of an oil pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48 states. And as Ted Virdone and Jyo Bhatt reported for the Socialist Alternative during the bill’s development in 2002:

“The pipeline will be privately owned and operated, so although the costs would be socialized, the profits are privatized. The bill also eliminates many vehicle safety regulations.

Democrats say that the Senate bill is environmentally friendly because it requires new cars to get 35 miles per gallon by 2013, and it requires that renewable energy comprise 10% of all retail electricity by 2020 … The technology already exists for all passenger vehicles to achieve that gas mileage, but the auto industry has refused to utilize that technology for new SUVs and trucks, and Congress has passed moratoriums on new fuel efficiency research.”

The Heritage Foundation, a neoconservative-laden right-wing think tank based in Washington, DC, boasted of the Democrats’ rewrite: “[The] bill includes provisions that strengthen the nation’s electricity system and, at the margins, narrows the gap between supply and demand. There are no: Mandatory renewable portfolio standards; Climate change initiatives; Statutory increases in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards; and Mandatory regional transmission organizations (RTOs).”

The Strip Club

Like his predecessors Bill Clinton and Al Gore, President Bush saw nothing wrong with the disastrous practice of hilltop strip mining (mountain-top removal) and overturned a federal ruling that had banned the practice during the Clinton years, despite the dismay of Al Gore. The push to lift the ban came from the stubborn Steven Griles, a scion of the mining industry and Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s top advisor in Washington. Democrats again offered little in the way of opposition, as they have historically backed the disastrous mining practice.

On May 13, 2002, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition issued a plea for opposition to the strip mine ruling. “In mountaintop removal coal companies blast off the tops of mountains to mine thin seams of coal. Rubble from the former mountaintops is pushed into ‘valley fills,’ burying streams in nearby valleys under hundreds of millions of tons of mining waste. In West Virginia alone, over 1,000 miles of streams have been obliterated by valley fills.”

Then in another bold move, the Bush administration pandered to corporate timber barons and authored a new anti-forest plan — ironically entitled the “Healthy Forests Initiative” — which mirrored Clinton’s chainsaw-happy Salvage Rider Act of 1995. Democratic senators, including Oregon’s Ron Wyden and California’s Dianne Feinstein, eventually rewrote Bush’s legislation. It was little surprise that Wyden supported the corporate timber bill, for no other senator receives more loot from the timber industry than Oregon’s Wyden.

Logging without Laws

The Clinton administration’s Salvage Rider, known to radical environmentalists as the “Logging without Laws” rider, was perhaps the most gruesome legislation ever enacted under the pretext of preserving ecosystem health. Like the Bush-Wyden-Feinstein forest initiative, Clinton’s act was choc full of deception and special interest pandering. “When [the Salvage Rider] bill was given to me, I was told that the timber industry was circulating this language among the Northwest Congressional delegation and others to try to get it attached as a rider to the fiscal year Interior Spending Bill,” environmental lawyer Kevin Kirchner says. “There is no question that representatives of the timber industry had a role in promoting this rider. That is no secret.”

In fact, Mark Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry and head of the United States Forest Service under Bush, authored the “Healthy Forest” plan and Clinton’s salvage bill while working as an aide for Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. “Like Bush’s so-called ‘Healthy Forest Initiative,’ the Salvage Rider temporarily exempted salvage timber sales on federal forest lands from environmental and wildlife laws, administrative appeals, and judicial review,” contends the Wilderness Society.

“The Salvage Rider directed the Forest Service to cut old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest that the agency had proposed for sale but subsequently withdrew due to environmental concerns, endangered species listings, and court rulings. Bush’s initiative also aims to increase logging of old-growth trees in the Pacific Northwest.”

Clinton during the time could have exercised presidential authority to force the relevant agencies to abandon all timber contracts that stemmed from the Salvage Rider. But he never flexed his muscle and instead sat by as the forests were subjected to gruesome annihilation.

Thousands of acres of healthy forestland across the West were rampaged. Washington’s Colville National Forest saw the clear cutting of over 4,000 acres. Thousands more in Montana’s Yaak River Basin, hundreds of acres of pristine forest land in Idaho, while the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl habitat in Arizona fell victim to corporate interests. Old growth trees in Washington’s majestic Olympic Peninsula — home to wild Steelhead, endangered Sockeye salmon, and threatened Marbled Murrelet — were chopped with unremitting provocation by the US Forest Service. And the assault on nature continued with Clinton’s blessing.

Just before Bush announced his version of Clinton’s salvage law, Democratic Senator Tom Daschle beat him to the punch, slipping his own crass language into a defense appropriations bill in the summer of 2002. Daschle’s legal jargon, backed by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, allowed unharnessed logging on American Indian land in his home state of South Dakota. These very holy lands, which the Sioux call Paha Sapa, were once a visionary refuge for Lakota elders, including Crazy Horse and Black Elk.

As journalist Jeffrey St. Clair wrote, “[The plan will allow] timber companies to begin logging in the Beaver Park roadless area and in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. These two areas harbor some of the last remaining stands of old-growth forest in the Black Hills. All of these timber sales will be shielded from environmental lawsuits, even from organizations that objected to the deal … The logging plan was consecrated in the name of fire prevention. The goal of the bill, Daschle said, ‘is to reduce the risk of forest fire by getting [logging] crews on the ground as quickly as possible to start thinning.’ It’s long been the self-serving contention of the timber lobby that the only way to prevent forest fires is to log them first.”

A product of Clinton and Daschle’s cunning style, Bush’s own forest plan — supported by the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the Senate — authorized the use of over $760 million in hopes of preventing wild fires. The legislation, renamed the “Healthy Forests Restoration Act,” accomplishes no such thing, of course. Instead, the bill sanctions the pillage of over 2.5 million acres of Federal forest land by 2012, including the single largest US Forest Service timber sale in modern history, where 30 square miles of Federal lands in Oregon, named the “Biscuit Fire Recovery Project,” could be logged, despite over 23,000 public statements denouncing the proposal.

With only thirteen casting a “no” vote on the grisly legislation, Democrats folded big time, backing the bill they should have been working tooth-and-nail to defeat. Incidentally, John Kerry forgot to show up for work that day and never voted.

Although the Democrats caved to Bush’s demands, some environmentalists claim that Clinton’s policies have been more detrimental to US forests than Bush’s. Of course you’ll never hear this from any mainstream environmental group. As veteran forest activist Michael Donnelly of Salem, Oregon, wrote in CounterPunch in December 2003:

“Perhaps the greatest irony is that the forests have fared far better under Bush than they did under his Democrat predecessor. Under Clinton’s [Salvage Rider] plan, some 1.1 billion board feet of Ancient Forest stumps were authorized annually. Much to the industry’s chagrin, under Bush, around 200 million per year has been cut. Already, that means that 2.7 billion board feet LESS has been cut under Bush than would have been under a Gore administration with the Big Greens’ usual silence regarding Democrat stump-creation.”

And if Bush were to continue at this rate for a total of eight years, then the “total cut of Ancient Forests will be 1.6 billion board feet, exactly what was cut in just one year under Clinton’s 1995 ‘Salvage Rider,” Donnelly contends.

Bush followed his forest follies by pushing his Clear Skies initiative, which calls for a reduction in the limit of harsh chemicals industrial polluters are permitted to emit. Although this plan hasn’t been written into legislation, Bush currently aims to cut the US’s “carbon intensity” by measuring the harsh pollutants with an economic model, rather than a scientific analysis. “The President is giving Congress an opportunity to deal with a key environmental and public health challenge — but only if the legislation it enacts is significantly stronger than the President’s proposal,” explains Joseph Goffman, a senior attorney for Environmental Defense. “The Environmental Protection Agency’s own air quality modeling and economic analyses show that deeper pollution reductions than called for under CSI are cost-effective and absolutely necessary to protect public health and the environment. CSI calls for reductions in sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NO), and mercury, but none in carbon dioxide pollution.”

The Republicans’ proposed 2005 budget — which has the support of many Senate Democrats — calls for almost $2 billion in cuts for environmental protection, including $500 million in cuts from the states’ Clean Water Fund. And on July 13, 2004, the Bush administration moved to roll back a road-less logging rule that was enacted in the waning days of the Clinton/Gore era. Clinton’s nature-friendly move was a token gesture to the environmental community, which protected 58.5 million acres of wilderness area from new road development.

However, Clinton’s effort was simply an election year stunt aimed at courting the green vote that was fleeing into Ralph Nader’s camp at a substantial rate in 2000. But astute environmental activists knew the clever protection wouldn’t last for long. Any protection initiated by executive order can be dismantled the same way. So when Bush’s announcement to kill Clinton’s decree came a day after he called for a possible postponement of the 2004 election in case of a terror attack, it was no big surprise. The decision will open these areas to road development, and eventually mass logging and oil procurement, if state governors fail to petition the initiatives. Time will tell whether Democratic governors will stand up for the rights of our national forests and federal wilderness areas. But don’t count on it. Their record isn’t much better than their wretched opposition. In some aspects the Democrats may be marginally better than the Republicans. At least they believe in evolution and most likely don’t get their science lessons from the Old Testament.

A slight variation in beliefs won’t win elections, however; it’s policy on the ground that matters. And the Democrats have not offered a substantial alternative to the Republican agenda regarding the environment.

(This is an excerpt from JOSHUA FRANK’s brand new book Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, which has just been released by Common Courage Press.) Josh can be reached at:



















JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.