How Green Became the Color of Money

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“Gestures of Goodwill”

Given his attenuated record in Arkansas no one should have expected President Bill Clinton to live up to his campaign promises of attacking “special interests” and defending the “little guy.” Any precious illusions about such a possibility disappeared even before the inauguration, when Clinton stock-piled his administration with an assortment of corporate lawyers (Mickey Kantor and Bernard Nussbaum), financiers (Robert Rubin of Goldman Sachs), lobbyists (Howard Paster and Ron Brown) and corporate executives (Mack McLarty).

Eager to demonstrate to CEOs that business need not fear the Democrats, Clinton was just as accommodating to big corporations as his Republican predecessors. He pushed through the NAFTA agreement, extended an R&D tax break worth billions to big business, halved his proposed corporate tax increase, dropped his carbon tax and won the enthusiastic endorsement of the auto industry by breaking a campaign pledge to force the Big Three car makers to increase fuel efficiency by 40 percent.

By late 1994, the elite press was congratulating Clinton for his wise policies and wondering why CEOs were more appreciative of his efforts on their behalf. “For all the arguments about whether Bill Clinton is a new Democrat or an old one, when it comes to pushing US business interests abroad, no recent president has demonstrated Clinton’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and dive into the sometimes grubby details of international deal-making,” wrote the editors of Time.

Business Week also expressed pleasure at Clinton’s approach. “Guess who’s coming to dinner?lunch and breakfast?since Bill Clinton moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?” asked the magazine. “After years of hobnobbing with Republican presidents, blue-chip CEOs are discovering that they can do brisk business with a Democratic chief executive, too.” Business Week observed that Clinton’s “outreach campaign [to the corporate sector] transcends anything the Democrats attempted before.” The DNC’s finance director, Terry McAuliffe, was quoted as gloating that big corporate donors were “screaming to give us checks.”

One man much pleased with the Democrats was Dwayne Andreas, top man at Archer-Daniels-Midland. Once known as the “kingpin of GOP fundraising”?his signature was on the check found Nixon’s Watergate burglars?Andreas changed trains in 1992 when it looked as if Clinton might capture the presidency. In the two years that followed Clinton’s coronation as the Democratic candidate, Andreas gave the party some $270,000 in soft money contributions.

In return for his public cheerleading for Clinton’s 1993 budget plan, Andreas got ethanol (the “alternative” corn-based fuel of which ADM was the world’s largest producer) exempted from Clinton’s BTU tax proposal, an exemption that opened the door to so many other challenges that ultimately the entire plan was scuttled. Clinton also quietly maintained a Bush-era tax subsidy for ethanol that ended up costing the government an estimated $3.4 billion.

But Clinton’s biggest gift, granted a mere one week after Andreas co-chaired a fundraising dinner that netted the Democrats $2.5 million in June of 1994, was an EPA ruling that by 1996 one-tenth of all gasoline sold in the United States had to contain ethanol. ADM, which produced 70 percent of the nation’s ethanol, gained an estimated $100 million a year as a result of this environmentally dubious decision.

Don Tyson, the Arkansas poultry tycoon and head of Tyson Foods, seemed to prosper no matter which party was in power. But his success during the early Clinton years was so staggering that he and his company were soon being investigated by a special prosecutor. The immediate focus: gifts of Super Bowl tickets, travel and a scholarship for the girlfriend of Clinton’s first Agriculture Secretary, Mike Espy, who was charged with overseeing and enforcing rules on the chicken industry. (Espy was acquitted in a jury trial. But Tyson Foods pleaded guilty to corruption charges and agreed to pay $6 million in fines.)

Tyson’s expansion into the fishing industry?soon becoming the second largest company fishing for Pacific whiting?also became the subject of controversy. In 1993 and 1994, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown took the highly unusual step of vetoing his own department’s Fisheries Council in two decisions that collectively meant millions of dollars for Tyson Foods.

In the first case, which came a year after Tyson purchased the Arctic Alaska Fishing Company (and renamed it Tyson Seafood Group), Brown allotted 70 percent of the highly-prized whiting catch to Tyson and other companies with massive factory trawlers and reserved only 30 percent for small fishermen, who have been increasingly edged out of the business by the giant firms. The Commerce Department’s Pacific Fisheries Management Council had suggested that the trawlers get just 26 percent.

In 1994, the Council ruled that factory trawlers, of which Tyson owned two, should pay 20 times more for permits than small boat owners, reflecting their far larger capacity. But Brown stepped in again, ruling that the ratio be cut to 12-to-1, thereby saving Tyson $800,000 with the stroke of a pen.

* * *

When Clinton came to DC, he brought Mack McLarty, formerly with the natural gas behemoth ARKLA and a golfing pal of the tycoons of Arkansas, with him as chief of staff. Along with the corporate lobbyist Vernon Jordon, McLarty played a decisive role in choosing Clinton’s cabinet, including Alice Rivlin at the Office of Management and Budget, Bruce Babbitt at Interior, Ron Brown at Commerce and former Al Gore staffers Carol Browner as administrator of the EPA and Katie McGinty as supervisor of the White House Office of Environmental Quality.

All were cut from the same pro-business, anti-regulatory cloth spun by the Democratic Leadership Council. In a move that was later to yield useful dividends, the Clinton transition team also stocked the administration with a cluster of 24 top-level staffers from the ranks of DC-based environmental groups. At the head was George Frampton, former president of the Wilderness Society, picked to serve as assistant secretary of Interior.

It didn’t take McLarty long to exert his veto power over environmental policy. The administration’s initial budget request to Congress included a provision to reform federal policies governing gold mining and subsidized grazing and timber sales on public lands. Widely supported by greens, these provisions would protected millions of acres of public forest and grassland from clearcutting, mining and livestock grazing, while saving the federal treasury nearly a billion dollars a year. Instead, it started a firestorm in the public lands states of the West. A group of western Democrats, led by Senator Max Baucus of Montana and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado (who later skipped to the Republican side of the aisle), wrote an angry letter denouncing the provision and threatening to launch a filibuster against it on the senate floor. McLarty swiftly invited the bellicose senators to the White House where he obediently agreed to pull the measure from the budget request.

Bruce Babbitt, whose office had drafted the proposal, found out about the McLarty’s deal-making the next night at a cocktail party. His unlikely informant was Jay Hair, still the head of the National Wildlife Federation. “The son of a bitch,” Babbitt raged. “He didn’t even have the fucking courtesy to ask me about it or even to tell me what he’d done.”

McLarty’s cave-in occurred on the eve of the first ever-presidential summit on environmental issues: the Presidential Conference on Northwest Forests, held in Portland, Oregon, on April 2, 1993.  The timber summit, as it came to be known, had its roots in the acrid controversy over the northern spotted owl and the clearcutting of ancient forests on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest.

The spotted owl, which lives only in large stands of old-growth trees, had been listed as a threatened species in 1990. The following year William Dwyer, a federal judge in Seattle, halted all logging on 6 million acres of old-growth forest in Oregon, Washington and northern California.  The Reagan-appointed judge excoriated the government for a “systematic disregard” of the nation’s environmental laws. The timber industry predictably bellowed that the injuntion was going to put them out of business and throw 100,000 millworkers and loggers onto the unemployment lines. Environmentalists responded that the decline in the owl’s population was just the beginning of a larger annulment of old-growth dwelling species, including dwindling stocks of Pacific salmon, marten, Pacific fisher, and marbled murrelets?all imperiled by logging. The most puissant predators of the forest, Weyerhauser, Georgia-Pacific and International Paper, which owned their own highly productive lands, were not affected by the injunction and, in fact, had seen their profits soar.

During their campaign swings through the Northwest, Clinton and Gore promised that within 90 days of taking office he would convene a summit to resolve the “timber crisis” once and for all. “I want to produce a legal plan for managing these forests,” Clinton assured voters, “and get the logs rolling back into the mills.”

So on April 2, 1993, Clinton summoned his top cabinet officials, corporate executives, millworkers, loggers, economists, bureaucrats, the Cardinal of Seattle, forest sociologists, academic and agency scientists and mainstream environmentalists to Portland, Oregon.

The timber summit itself proved to be an orchestrated piece of theater designed to allow Clinton to demonstrate his affection for nature and to show that he “felt the pain” of laid off millworkers. At the same time, the President humbly deferred to the true source of the timber workers’ economic woes: Weyerhaeuser vice president Charlie Bingham, who commanded the exportation of billions of board feet of raw logs to mills overseas. Bingham and Clinton had known each other for years.

At the close of the day, Clinton bragged of taking the conflict “out of the courtroom and into the conference room,” and promised that his administration would produce a “scientifically credible and legally responsible plan” within in a mere 90 days. The stated goal of the plan was to provide a steady flow of timber to Northwest mills and to protect the federally-owned habitat of the northern spotted owl and Pacific salmon stocks.

Insinuated into every line of Clinton’s screed, however, was the promise that the roar of chainsaws would be sacrosanct in the federal woods, immune from even modest attempts to slow the frenzied pace of the logging of ancient trees or the export of unprocessed logs. And so it came to pass.

Clinton swiftly assembled a task force of federal bureaucrats, headed by Forest Service research ecologist Jack Ward Thomas and forester Jerry Franklin, who also happened to be a board member of the Wilderness Society. The scientists devised eight options for the president’s consideration. None of them permitted enough logging to satisfy Clinton’s political objectives to appease the timber industry and other corporations watching from the sidelines. Clinton and his Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, instructed the team to concoct another alternative, the infamous Option Nine.

While Option Nine reduced the amount of logging allowed on national forest lands, it failed to set aside any permanently protect old-growth forest preserves, and permitted clearcutting in most ancient forest groves and inside the most vital spotted owl and salmon habitat. In fact, the environmental analysis accompanying the Clinton plan admitted that this politically-driven approach placed hundreds of species at increased risk of extinction, including the spotted, marbled murrelet and dozens of stocks of salmon and steelhead trout.

The scientists working on the project were prohibited from talking to the press, and their leader, Jack Ward Thomas, promptly shredded documents that revealed the fake science behind Option Nine.

Months later, Clinton tapped Thomas as the new chief of the Forest Service. Leaders of the DC environmental groups dutifully claimed Thomas’s appointment as a major victory, despite his role in developing the new old-growth logging plan.

Thomas was known as a brilliant ecologist, but also as an arrogant and mean-spirited quisling, dating back to his days managing a Forest Service research station in eastern Oregon called the Starker Forest.  The Starker Forest was meant to be immune from industrial logging. Here stood one of the last untouched stands of old-growth ponderosa pines in the Blue Mountains. It had become a Mecca for scientists studying the ecology of old-growth systems in the dry interior West. As chief research ecologist, Thomas managed the land and decided who could conduct studies there. When research money began to dry up in the 1980s, Thomas secretly sold an area of prime forest to Boise-Cascade, which promptly clearcut it. When scientists protested, Thomas threatened to kill their research projects and ban future studies on the forest.

Within  months of assuming his new post in the Clinton administration, Thomas approved the biggest timber sale in the modern history of the Forest Service. The so-called Prince-of-Wales timber sale on the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska called for the clearcutting of thousands of acres of ancient rainforest and the construction of more than 100 miles of logging roads into an ecologically fragile and previously roadless landscape. The sale, which wnt to Lousiania-Pacific, prompted strenuous objections from numerous biologists and geologists within the Forest Service.

But Thomas didn’t tolerate internal dissent. In the spring of 1994, Thomas fired two Forest Service whistleblowers. Ernie Nunn and Curtis Bates had both stood up to the timber and mining companies in Montana. The pair first ran into trouble back in 1990, when they signed a letter which described the Forest Service has being dominated by the whims of the extractive industries and out of touch with the environmental concerns of the American public. That letter sparked such a revolt inside the Forest Service that the Bush administration attempted to sack the dissident forest supervisors.  This Republican bid failed, rebuffed by congressional hearings and public outcry. Four years later, with a Democratic president and a Democratic congress, Thomas moved swiftly and with impunity to fire Bates and Nunn.

Despite these outrages, many of the big green groups remained locked in a necrotic embrace with the Clinton administration. The Sierra Club’s Carl Pope, a long-time pal of Al Gore, hailed the Option Nine logging plan as a “fair and reasonable compromise.” The National Audubon Society’s Brock Evans, long touted as the best environmental lobbyist on the Hill, pronounced it a “shaky victory.”

The Clinton administration floated a draft version of Option Nine before the public. Then Bruce Babbitt called on environmental leaders to annul the very legal injunctions they had won in Judge Dwyer’s courtroom against logging in spotted owl habitat. As a “gesture of goodwill” to the Clinton administration, Babbitt demanded that the environmentalists swallow a raft of timber sales in ancient forests. If they refused, Babbitt warned, the Clinton administration would ask Congress to overturn the injunction with what’s known as a sufficiency rider, a despicable legal tactic from of the Reagan/Bush years. With such a rider, Congress can simply over-ride existing legal hurdles, such as the Endangered Species Act, and make the logging immune from future challenges in the federal courts.

Lawyers for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (the self-proclaimed “dream team” of environmental law firms) forthwith arm-twisted its clients into handing over several thousand acres of old-growth forest for logging and then, months later, relinquished the Dwyer injuction itself.

Grassroots greens vigorously resisted this surrender. But the Defense Fund, which held a near monopoly on non-profit environmental litigation, threatened to abandon any clients who refused to go along with its advice. One of the strange pathologies afflicting contemporary environmentalism is that a conservation group without a law firm behind it suffers extreme pangs of institutional impotence. “The problem was that SCLDF’s arguments stemmed from political, not legal, judgments,” recalls Oregon environmentalist Larry Tuttle. “And those arguments were shaped in large measure by their own economic self-interest, that is their right to sue and reap heft attorneys’ fees from the government, and not the future the forests or the spotted owls.”

Eventually, the environmentalists collapsed. And in the spring of 1994, the logging of ancient forests resumed for the first time in four years. Things had indeed been better with George Bush and gridlock.

To be continued.

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:

This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3