The Gainsville Times
Tuesday 23 April 2003
With the nation's attention still riveted on the war in Iraq, most Americans probably aren't aware that today is Earth Day.
Some area environmentalists say the Bush administration has taken advantage of the public's distraction, pushing through an anti-environmental agenda without anyone noticing.
"Fear is a good tool," said Adele Kushner, president of Alto-based Action for a Clean Environment. "You get people worried about something else, and then they don't have time to think about who's chopping all their trees down."
Brent Martin, director of Georgia ForestWatch in Ellijay, said the administration is trying to weaken landmark federal statutes, such as the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts, that have been in place for decades.
"We've had major environmental rollbacks in the last 90 days, but they've managed to get all this stuff in under the radar," he said. "Everything has been subsumed by war coverage, and no one is listening."
In March, for example, the administration reversed a ban on snowmobiles in national parks, called for legislation exempting military installations from federal environmental laws, and dropped Clinton-era rules that were set to take effect on cleaning up impaired streams.
And this month, the Department of the Interior announced that 3 million acres of designated wilderness in Utah would lose protected status.
"I think we're looking at an administration that's far worse than the (former Interior Secretary James) Watt years under Reagan," Martin said. "But they're subtle about it. They take a logging plan and call it the Healthy Forests Initiative. They take a plan that allows more air pollution and call it the Clear Skies Initiative."
Kushner said she's frustrated by these euphemistic slogans.
"'Clear Skies' sounds good, but what it actually meant was that enforcement (of air-quality rules) on coal-fired power plants became voluntary," she said. "With good PR and good speechwriters, you can make it sound pretty. But it's a farce."
Bob Baschnagel, associate director of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, said the situation has turned out exactly as he feared it would.
"When Bush took office, he placed former industry lobbyists in environmental positions throughout his administration," he said. "He took a lot of heat for his environmental policies at first. But after Sept. 11, that was all forgotten. The public's attention span is not that long, and they have so many other concerns now."
Foremost among these worries is the economy. In a March Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans said they think the environment is getting worse, compared to 38 percent in 2002. Yet when asked, 'If the environment and economic growth conflict, which should take priority?', respondents were much more likely to choose growth than they were a year ago.
And not everyone is unhappy with Bush's policies. David Jarrard, a sawmill owner in White County, would love to see wilderness areas eliminated in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
"It would be so much better if they got rid of these restrictions," he said. "We can't even go in and get rid of the pine beetle infestation."
Organizations that oppose the administration's policies have little strength to fight back, as nonprofits have been hit hard by the weak economy.
"Funding is tough," Kushner said. "Some foundations have gone belly-up."
Baschnagel said longtime activists tell him they have never seen a more gloomy situation. But they're determined to weather the storm.
"The environmental movement is not going to go away," he said. "At some point, the Bush administration will slip up and the pendulum will start to swing back. This too will pass."
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