Oct. 29, 2004 – During his time as president, George W. Bush has pledged to bring the country "healthy forests" and "clear skies."
But almost across the board, environmental groups and advocates are outraged at what they call the double-speak involved in the so-called "Healthy Forest Initiative" Bush signed this year, which actually allows for increased logging under the guise of fire prevention, and of the "Clear Skies Initiative," which would gut provisions of the Clean Air Act and relax enforcement of pollution controls on coal-burning power plants and other industries.
Numerous environmental groups have called Bush the worst president ever when it comes to protecting natural resources and the environment.
During his presidency, Bush has eviscerated protections for forests, rivers, lakes, clean air and endangered species and other wildlife. He has significantly relaxed governmental regulation of industry pollution, and he has hobbled the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s ability to go after polluters by cutting its staff and budget.
Even many Republicans say they are planning to vote against Bush because of his record on the environment.
"The fact that the Republican Party has turned its back on the environment is very troubling," said Jo Johnson, co-director of the group River Runners for Wilderness in Boulder, Co. and a member of a newly formed chapter of the national group Republicans for Environmental Protection. "I know thereâ€™ll be a lot of Republicans who vote for Kerry."
"On both sides of the aisle they are very beholden to special interests. Our job is not going to be easy no matter who wins, because of the corrupting influence big money has had on our public lands." -- George Nickas, Wilderness Watch
In contrast to Bush, John Kerry, who helped organize the first Earth Day in Massachusetts in 1970, served as delegate to the Kyoto global warming talks in 1997 and the Hague climate talks in 2000, is considered an environmental champion by many.
Kerry has won endorsements from large environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters for his support for liberal ecology policies.
For instance, Kerry opposed the Bush administrationâ€™s attempts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. He also voted in 2003 to eliminate subsidies for factory farms that pollute air and groundwater, and in 2002 he opposed attempts to delay the regulation of hydraulic fracturing, which the Sierra Club calls "a damaging new form of oil and gas drilling that poses a serious pollution threat."
And while Bush did not push for renewal of the "polluter pays" provision of Superfund -- a program that allows the government to clean up extremely toxic sites and try to collect the cost from the responsible parties -- Kerry did.
Kerry also proposes a plan to protect and restore the Great Lakes, by, among other things, blocking water diversion from the lakes, clamping down on mercury emissions from power plants near the Lakes, cleaning up toxic spots in and around the lakes and combating invasive species in the Lakes and surrounding areas.
Nevertheless, many environmentalists say even Kerryâ€™s record and proposals leave a lot to be desired. Tim Hermach of the group Native Forest Council in Eugene, Oregon says Kerry is little better than Bush in his book.
"If you care about reality versus rhetoric, they are the same," said Hermach. "Kerry also supports logging, he just says he is more reasonable. He supported free trade, he supported [Clintonâ€™s] Northwest Forest Plan," which allowed for some logging in areas with endangered species.
Hermach does not like the fact that major environmental groups are supporting Kerry.
"When thereâ€™s a Democrat in office the big environmental groups are emasculated," he said. "I loved the FDR Democrats and the Teddy Roosevelt Republicans; they saw the danger to our country that the timber industry poses. But the Democratic Party now is compromising away our forests every year. These arenâ€™t things you can get back."
George Nickas, executive director of the group Wilderness Watch, said both parties have been compromised by money and influence.
"On both sides of the aisle they are very beholden to special interests," said Nickas, who is based in Missoula, Montana. "Our job is not going to be easy no matter who wins, because of the corrupting influence big money has had on our public lands."
Both Nickas and Johnson point out that along with the traditional anti-environment forces like the timber, mining and cattle industries, the commercial recreation industry is one of the major players in this era. This includes expensive, often motorized recreation such as snowmobiling, off-road driving and commercial guided tours. These interests, which they describe as highly organized and powerful, advocate opening wilderness areas to motorized vehicles or boats and generally gutting wilderness protections. Nickas notes that both through money and personal connections, this industry has a lot of pull with both parties.
"You see the influence of commercial recreation beginning to have a huge impact on our public land and policy," he said. "[Politicians] have started moving away from the timber and grazing interests and dancing with the commercial [recreation] industry, which is different than the others but potentially as destructive or more destructive."
Third party candidates have also gained support from environmentalists.
As his partyâ€™s name would imply, Green Party candidate David Cobb promises a strong stance on environmental protections and conservation, as does independent candidate Ralph Nader.
"The epidemic of silent environmental violence continues," says the Nader for President web site. "Whether it is the 65,000 Americans who die every year from air pollutionâ€¦or the 100,000 Americans whose demise comes from occupational toxic exposure or the cruel environmental racism where the poor and their often asthmatic children live in pollution sinks located near toxic hot spots."
Cobbâ€™s campaign web site lists 10 key points, which include slowing global warming, energy independence and healthy forests. On the matter of energy, the site reads: "The technology now exists to bring us to a new level of energy efficiency, reliability, safety, and national security. Cobb [and running mate Patricia] LaMarche call for more public transit, better fuel efficiency for cars, and most of all political leadership that isn't beholden to corporations like Enron and Exxon."
Corporate Contributions and Forest Erosion
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a government watchdog group that tracks the political effects of campaign contributions, the forestry and forest products industry donated almost $3 million to Republicans this election cycle, with $579,342 of it going straight to the Bush-Cheney campaign.
In contrast, the Democrats have received 20 percent of that amount: $734,579, with $58,850 going to Kerry-Edwards. Still, the Kerry campaign is the third largest recipient of forest industry funding, after Bush and Representative Greg Walden (R-Oregon).
A July 2004 report by the group Common Cause in Oregon, ground zero of the struggle over logging, catalogues donations to the Republican Party by timber interests this presidential season. It notes that Bushâ€™s major donors include the Columbia Helicopters company, which does helicopter-based logging, and the Rough and Ready Lumber company. Rough and Ready and individuals associated with it donated at least $27,450 to Bush and the GOP since 2000, the report notes, and Columbia donated $118,750. In all, fourteen Oregon timber companies donated over $670,000 to Bush and the GOP since 2000, as well as hundreds of thousands more in soft money to other Republican candidates.
And critics note that Bushâ€™s Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment, Mark Rey, was previously a lobbyist for the paper and logging industries.
Measures taken by the Bush administration that benefit the timber industry include passing the Healthy Forests Initiative; exempting some forests from the "roadless rule," which protects millions of acres of roadless forest across the country; repeal of protections for old growth forest, wildlife and water sources in the Northwest Forest Plan instituted by Clinton; and promotion of what the report calls "the largest federal timber sale in modern history": the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project in southwest Oregon.
Bush billed the Healthy Forests Initiative as a measure to "reduce the threat of destructive wildfires," saying the legislation is based on "sound science." The basis for the plan is that more logging will reduce the threat of fires; Bushâ€™s web site euphemistically says the act will "reduce the complexity of environmental analysis allowing federal land agencies to use the best science available to actively manage land under their protection."
Kerry missed the vote on Healthy Forests, even though he has said the initiative "takes a chainsaw to public forests in the name of protecting them." But he also told the Wall Street Journal, that he advocates "a vibrant, strong [logging] industry" and that he liked "a lot of parts of [the Healthy Forests Initiative], but there are some big loopholes."
Kerry was a co-sponsor of the bill creating the "roadless rule" when it was implemented by Clinton, and he has promised to enforce the rule, which he says Bush "abandoned," soon after taking office.
Oil and Fuel Economy
The Bush administration has been widely criticized for aggressively seeking access to oil from the Middle East to Venezuela to Alaska, rather than aggressively moving to reduce the countryâ€™s dependence on oil.
Bush received $2,313,440 from the oil and gas industry while Kerry received $253,650, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Overall Democrats got 19 percent of the oil and gas lobbyâ€™s money and Republicans got 81 percent, from donors such as Exxon Mobil, Valero Energy and Koch Industries.
Bushâ€™s campaign web site states that he will protect the environment by increasing fuel efficiency in cars and expanding the use of ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen technology and renewable energy. Among other things he promises to offer a $4,000 tax credit toward the purchase of hybrid cars and invest $1.4 billion over ten years to make homes more energy efficient.
But critics say he has taken few meaningful steps to promote renewable energy and fuel and energy efficiency.
According to the Sierra Club, "Despite a very modest increase in SUV and light truck fuel economy standards the administration has failed to institute any meaningful improvements in efficiency measures, fuel economy standards or the renewable energy portfolio."
Kerry has been a vocal proponent of energy efficient vehicles.
During an Earth Day speech in 2003, he said, "I believe we should set a national goal of having 20 percent of our electricity come from domestic alternative and renewable sources by the year 2020â€¦We can cut our dependence on foreign oil by building more efficient cars and SUVs and creating a national market for the biofuels grown on farms across the country."
In the Senate last year, Kerry voted for setting a goal of 100,000 hydrogen-powered cars on the road by 2010. In 1999 he voted against defunding solar and renewable energy sources, and last year he voted for keeping the issue of climate change in the EPAâ€™s â€˜State of the Environmentâ€™ reports.
Coal and Clean Air
With $251,759, Bush was the top recipient of contributions from the coal mining industry this election cycle. Kerry has not received substantial funds from the mining industry. Overall, the Republicans carved out 91 percent of donations from the coal mining industry.
Bush promises to support "clean coal technology" with an investment of $2 billion over ten years. His web site says he will "implement a market-based approach to cutting air pollution that will create a nearly $50 billion technology and services market for clean coal rather than forcing a shift to other fuels to meet air standards."
While "clean coal" might sound like an oxymoron, coal-burning power plants can be outfitted with technology including "scrubbers" that reduce their emissions by as much as 90 percent, a move advocated by groups including the American Lung Association. However, public health and environmental advocates generally think companies will only implement this expensive technology if forced to do so by stricter anti-pollution laws, not through subsidies alone.
Critics say Bushâ€™s investment in "clean coal" is just an excuse to subsidize the coal industry and continue weakening clean air protections.
They point to the Bush administrationâ€™s changes to a provision of the Clean Air Act known as "New Source Review" which required older power plants -- at first given leeway under the Clean Air Act -- to come into compliance with the Actâ€™s standards when they updated, repaired or expanded their existing facilities significantly. In 2003, the administration changed the language and implementation of New Source Review so that power plants, oil refineries, chemical manufacturers and other companies are not as bound to meet the standards.
Environmentalists have also criticized Bushâ€™s proposed alternative to the Clean Air Act. The language of the Clear Skies Initiative, which has been stagnating in Congress due to a lack of support, disguises the act as a measure to reduce air pollution. But in reality it "repeals and weakens public health protections of the Clean Air Act, diluting standards while extending the time in which companies are required to comply with reductions," as the Sierra Clubâ€™s web site describes it.
Though Clear Skies does require companies to reduce emissions, it is much weaker than the Clean Air Act, which it supplants. By 2020, it is estimated Clear Skies will have allowed 42 million tons more emissions than the Clean Air Act would have permitted.
In addition to air quality concerns associated with coal burning power plants, conservationists point out that coal mining itself is a dirty business with drastic environmental effects. The use of a type of strip mining called "mountain top removal" in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania has had dramatic effects on local environments.
As entire mountains are shaved off, their tops dumped as rubble into the valleys below, mountain top removal is forever changing the landscapes and the ecosystems of some of the countryâ€™s most beautiful regions.
Groups have been challenging this type of mining, saying it violates the Clean Water Act by choking streams and rivers with the remains of mountains as well as highly toxic waste from the coal mining process. But the Bush administration has sought to counter that movement by changing the definitions of banned waste in the Act itself.
Meanwhile Bush has also pushed for more development of nuclear energy and has advocated for a nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Critics say the implementation of Yucca Mountain would encourage more development of nuclear energy as a whole and put people near the storage site and along transport routes at risk in the case of an accident or terrorist attack.
Though he voted to consider Yucca Mountain as a nuclear storage site in 1987, Kerry has since vocally opposed the idea. On an August swing through Las Vegas, 90 miles from the proposed site, Kerry promised his opposition to nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
"Yucca Mountain to me is a symbol of the recklessness and the arrogance for which they are willing to proceed with respect to the safety issues and concerns of the American people," the Washington Post quoted Kerry as saying. "When John Kerry is president, there will be no nuclear waste at Yucca."
Meanwhile vice presidential candidate John Edwards has voted in favor of storage at Yucca Mountain in the past, though now he says he opposes it.
On a global level, Bush pulled out of the Kyoto climate treaty that included 38 other industrialized nations and aimed to reduce the worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases.
He also supported the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other free trade agreements that supersede countriesâ€™ own environmental protections. Through the WTO and under terms of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed during President Clintonâ€™s tenure), corporations can sue governments for interfering with their commerce in order to safeguard environmental or social interests.
Kerry unsuccessfully proposed including environmental protections in Fast Track trade negotiation authority legislation. Nevertheless, he voted for the bill even without such protections, in order grant the president authority on furthering trade deals. He also voted for various two-way and other free trade arrangements set to undercut environmental protections.
Environmental groups lament that despite important legislation pending on environmental and health issues, overall, the environment hasnâ€™t been a major focus during the election.
"It should be [a larger issue in the campaign] because if we donâ€™t have the environment, what do we have?" asked Johnson, who is heavily involved in a campaign to keep motorized boats and vehicles out of the Grand Canyon. "Itâ€™s where we live."
"What are we without the wilderness?" asks Nickas. "Our world and our lives would be different without it. We have a commitment to protect it for future generations."