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Bush policies swell environmental group rolls

Sunday, April 22, 2001

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

From arsenic to old growth timbering, the environmental policies embraced by President Bush in the first three months of his presidency have made him the dark star of this year's Earth Day and spiked environmental group membership as well.

Last year, organizers for the 30th annual Party for the Planet had to trot out no less a draw than Titanic heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio to emcee the event in Washington, D.C., and inject some youthful energy into the festivities.

But galvanizing the greens this Earth Day is Bush. Environmental groups have decried, among other things, his opposition to the Kyoto treaty to cut emissions of chemicals that fuel global warming, his push for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his delay of a rule protective of national forest roadless areas.

The president last week let stand Clinton-era rules on lead emissions reporting and wetlands preservation. But those actions have done little to diminish the feeling of many environmentalists that Bush's assault on the environment is far-reaching and ideologically driven.

"I think there's more interest in Earth Day this year because the administration's conduct indicates to me, and apparently many other people, that it will try to weaken environmental laws to whatever extent it can -- either by weak enforcement, nonenforcement or regulatory rollbacks," said former Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who along with activist Dennis Hayes organized the first Earth Day in 1970.

Nelson, now 84 and a consultant for the Wilderness Society in Washington, said in a phone interview last week that Bush's environmental policies were driven by corporate political contributors. The president's eagerness to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a response to electricity shortages in California, he added, is "baloney."

"It's a politically disgraceful position," Nelson said. "That's because, if the administration would require automakers to increase fuel efficiency by just one or two miles per gallon, the country could save the equivalent of all the oil under the ANWR times 10. So they're real phonies."

Also stoking a "fierce green fire" are proposed cuts in the Interior and Environmental Protection Agency budgets and the appointment of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a protege of James Watt, President Ronald Reagan's highly criticized Interior secretary, who was forced to resign in 1983.

As a consequence, national environmental groups are seeing interest, and in many cases their membership, rise along with the public's environmental concerns.

"We saw dramatically increased interest right out of the box when Bush named Gale Norton," said Lisa Wade, a spokeswoman for the League of Conservation Voters. "Her nomination generated concern and a lot of activity on our Web site. That resulted in 19,000 faxes being sent to the Senate urging a 'no' vote on the nomination. That was unprecedented."

Wade said membership also had increased as a result of the Bush administration's onslaught of attacks on environmental regulations and programs.

Wade said the biggest public response came in reaction to the administration's proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, but there also was strong reaction to Bush reneging on a campaign promise to reduce emissions by utilities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, and his refusal to let stand tighter standards for arsenic in drinking water.

Sierra Club membership has risen, from 641,679 in December to 674,865 at the end of February, the last month for which numbers are available. Carl Pope, the group's executive director, said the number of people visiting the group's Web site had more than doubled in the last few months compared with the same period a year ago.

"The Web site visits show there's a dramatic increase in interest and activism, and that's more exciting than the increasing membership numbers," Pope said. "People are very energized. They're surprised by the intensity of what Bush is doing to shred the environmental safety net. They're responding by saying they need to do something."

The Wilderness Society Web site also has recorded a much bigger volume of hits in recent months, and the number of phone calls to the group's headquarters has gone up 20 percent, said Ben Beach, a spokesman for the society.

"Bush is acting like he received his mandate from the oil, gas, mining and logging industries," Beach said. "People calling our office want to know what they can do to counter Bush's policies. We tell them to let their representatives on Capitol Hill know they're unhappy."

State environmental organizations say there is widespread alarm at the local level, too.

Peter Wray, chair of the Sierra Club Allegheny Group, said it was too early to tell what effect Bush's policies would have on the group's membership, which, over the past two years, has risen from 18,000 to 25,000.

"Membership is already at a clear record, and we do expect more of an increase. But this is not the best way to get it," Wray said.

He said yesterday's Earth Day Fair and Lecture at Frick Park reflected the increased interest. Thirty-five groups were represented, compared with 23 at a similar event at the park last year.

"There is broad concern in all kinds of places, from bar stools to church pews and even some traditionally Republican quarters, over what is perceived as blatant caving in to special interests," said John Hanger, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, one of the groups at the Frick fair.

But despite membership gains, increased donations and more Web site hits, environmental groups aren't about to thank the president for bringing good times.

"We've had higher call volume, but that's a very poor tradeoff for lousy policies," he said. "The assault on our environmental laws is dragging people away from trying to fix existing problems, and instead we are being forced to try to prevent existing problems from getting worse.

"We'd readily trade all this increased membership and interest for good environmental policies that would put people back to sleep."

Hanger said the focus on this Earth Day should be more about trying to influence state and national legislators than about planting trees and picking up trash, although those efforts are still needed and will occur at a number of locations.

To respond politically, he said, PennFuture is supporting introduction of a global warming bill in the state Legislature this month that will call on the state Department of Environmental Protection to inventory all greenhouse gas emissions in the state and propose a mitigation plan.

"It's obvious from Bush's flip-flop on the Kyoto treaty and the carbon dioxide limits that he can't be relied on to lead on the most important environmental issue of this century," Hanger said. "Pennsylvania contributes 1 percent of all the manmade global warming gases produced. A resolution to address that problem is a good first step."Jennifer O'Donnell, a field organizer for Ohio Citizen Action, said the increased public awareness of Bush policies was reflected in the high number of applications for summer work the group was getting from out-of-state students, but a more personal story is just as telling.

She and her father, a conservative Republican who voted for Bush, were at the hospital recently waiting for her sister to give birth, and he started to ask lots of questions about the administration's policies.

"He went off on the arsenic standard, saying that if the lower standard is good enough for Europe, it should be good enough for us," O'Donnell said. "Then he started in on Kyoto and global warming and was very critical of the Bush positions.

"I was so shocked. He'd never said anything like that before."

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