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Turning Environmental Protections to Mush

Bush's attack on federal resources and rules was honed in the states

April 19, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It’s been a busy few months for George W. Bush and the business allies who backed the President’s program of cutting costs, stifling regulation, and limiting government’s reach. Now that Mr. Bush has halted U.S. efforts to solve global warming, sidelined rules to protect 60 million acres of wilderness, suspended new limits on arsenic in drinking water, and supported new drilling in the Arctic, the world as viewed from industrial front offices certainly looks like a safer place.

These early forays by the White House to undermine popular safeguards are part of a proven strategic plan, tested and perfected in G.O.P-dominated states in the 1990s. The strategy: Ease regulatory barriers and make it much easier for the oil, mining, forestry, construction, and real estate industries to gain access to water, air, land, timber, minerals, and energy.

Michigan: A Testing Ground
No state, arguably, has been a more important testing ground for the G.O.P.’s effort to turn environmental programs into mush than Michigan.

On a platform of jobs, education, welfare reform, tax cuts, and deregulation, conservative John Engler became Michigan’s governor in 1991 and has since built a political juggernaut. Conservatives control every major elected office in state government, with the exception of the attorney general. Mr. Engler’s prowess in raising money and getting his people into office helped him become one of the most influential Republican leaders in the nation.

It was Mr. Engler, who as chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 1996, first identified and then rallied his colleagues around Mr. Bush as the G.O.P. presidential nominee. The two men are personal and political friends and share the same views about limiting government’s reach in managing the environment.

Thus Michigan is an excellent place to understand and predict both the steps the Bush administration will likely take to encourage exploitation of the nation’s most prized natural resources, and their political consequences.

A New Goal in Michigan and the White House: Environmental Retreat
Judging Mr. Engler’s 10-year record as Michigan’s chief resource steward against the state’s tradition of leadership on the environment and public heath is like comparing a common moth to a monarch butterfly. >From 1970 to 1990, Michigan set the standard nationally for effective action to safeguard natural resources. Michigan was the first state in the nation to ban DDT, the first state to establish a comprehensive toxic waste clean up program, and the first state to establish a wetland protection program. At the core of Michigan’s policy was a firm belief in the principle that economic advancement and environmental protection were compatible goals.

As governor, Mr. Engler redefined the principles of economic development and environmental protection, and tilted conservation and public health protection programs heavily toward a "growth at any cost" agenda. Many of the steps he took mirror those President Bush is taking a decade later. Consider:

Michigan, 1991: Mr. Engler cut the state environmental agency’s budget to reduce staff. In November, by executive order, he also dismantled 19 separate independent citizen oversight boards that for more than 20 years played an integral role in providing a forum for ordinary people to be heard, and to influence decisions by the Department of Natural Resources.

U.S. 2001: In his own budget proposal, President Bush said he wanted to cut the Interior Department’s budget by nearly four percent, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by more than six percent.

Michigan, October 1995: Mr. Engler appointed Russell Harding as director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, turning the agency over to a libertarian activist who’s developed a record of skirting the law. Members of the development community benefit by gaining faster permits for tearing up wetlands, paving over farmland, and adding pollutants to the air and water.

U.S. 2001: Mr. Bush’s Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, was trained by James Watt, a libertarian, free market ideologue who served as President Reagan’s Interior Secretary.

In these and a host of other actions Mr. Engler took, including passage of one new law that allows industries to inspect themselves and another that makes it harder for citizens to gain public documents under the state Freedom of Information Act, the governor established a new business-friendly culture in government. Environmental and public health protection was an after thought, just as they are today for Mr. Bush.

The Michigan governor’s approach to stewardship is causing damage that is now apparent across the state:

  • Some parts of southeast Michigan, where half the state’s 9.9 million people live, are regularly inundated by flood waters, the result, in part, of rain-absorbing wetlands being unlawfully filled and paved.
  • Fecal contamination caused by the flooding, and the state’s unwillingness to enforce the Clean Water Act, regularly closes public beaches on Lake St. Clair north of Detroit — a primary recreation resource for more than one million people.
  • Northern Michigan's once-intact blanket of forest is now laced with thousands of clearings for natural gas wells, roads, pipelines, and industrial installations that the Engler administration actively encouraged and subsidized.

How’d He Do That?
The question is how Mr. Engler got away with it in a state in which poll after poll reports strong citizen support for conserving natural resources and stricter enforcement of environmental law. The answers, which state environmental leaders assert are crucial to both understanding and responding to the new White House initiatives, are rhetoric and political skill.

First, Mr. Engler always sounds green. "One of the greatest obligations of state government is to manage and conserve our natural resources for the sake of this and future generations," Mr. Engler said in his 1998 State of the State address, in a typical statement. Mr. Bush also takes pains to sound green. Even as he removed the United States from the international global warming treaty negotiations, Mr. Bush said he was "concerned" about the issue.

Second, Mr. Engler is not above bending the truth. He and his spokesmen are fond of saying that Michigan’s environment "is in better shape than at any time in Michigan’s history.." What they don’t say is that there is slim evidence to support the statement. The state’s water monitoring program, which collected regular samples from 600 sites statewide in the 1970s and 1980s, disintegrated because of Engler-inspired budget cuts. By 1995, the state monitored water from just 13 sites. The water monitoring program is only now being rebuilt.

Similarly, Mr. Bush did not blush at all last month when he disavowed a campaign pledge to limit emissions of carbon dioxide in order to slow global warming.

Third, Mr. Engler, like President Bush, is a practical politician. In 1997, in his State of the State address, Mr. Engler saluted the property rights movement, a new force in state politics that chafed at public land ownership. "I think that government already owns enough land — one in five acres statewide," he said.

Just four years later, after voters in Michigan overwhelmingly voiced their support for public land and approved new bond initiatives and property tax increases to buy open space, Mr. Engler changed his tune. In his 2001 State of the State, delivered in January, Mr. Engler did an about face and claimed credit for adding to Michigan’s four million acre public domain, the largest of any state east of the Mississippi River. "During the past decade, more than 46,000 acres of land were acquired by the Department of Natural Resources and local governments for public use," he boasted.

Even Mr. Engler’s staunchest foes marvel. "He’s been able to do what he does because when he needs to, he’ll adjust his position and his rhetoric. He’s smart and he’s prepared," said Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, and a former three-term Democratic state senator who served with Mr. Engler in the Legislature.

But Ms. Pollack and other state environmental leaders asserted that Mr. Engler’s approach fostered a climate of almost third-world political favoritism and environmental recklessness. Take the oil industry, a friend to Mr. Engler and to Mr. Bush, as an example.

From 1990 to 1998, according to public records, the Michigan energy industry contributed $383,400 to Mr. Engler. The investment paid off. In 1993, senior state officials and industry executives privately negotiated a sweetheart deal that allowed natural gas drillers to write off virtually all of their production costs for new wells on state land before paying the state royalties. The deal, which never came before the legislature for review, needlessly accelerated gas drilling in state forests, damaging hundreds of thousands of acres. It also drained $8 million a year from the Natural Resources Trust Fund, a public account derived from royalty revenues from oil and gas production on state land and used to buy ecologically valuable parcels for natural areas and recreation.

President Bush and his allies in Congress are already proposing similar subsidies for their friends in the oil industry in an energy bill introduced in early March by Senator Frank Murkowski, Republican of Alaska.

This permissive approach to resource exploitation and weakened environmental protection caught on with voters and political leaders in the economic doldrums of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Conservatives came to power promising to cut taxes, reduce regulations, and get "big government" off business’ back. The rhetoric promised more efficiency and more effective regulatory agencies. The reality of what’s happened in the states is much different.

A Warning for White House: Engler Approach Prompted Grassroots Backlash
Yet just as Michigan is a model for predicting how the White House will reward its industrial friends and unravel environmental safeguards, the state also is a laboratory for understanding the political consequences, and a warning for Mr. Bush.

In recent months, Gov. Engler has come under significant grassroots pressure from voters upset by the state’s tilt towards economic development at the expense of clean air and water. Public hearings on disputed air, water, and hazardous waste permits are attracting hundreds of citizens who call on state regulators to enforce state environmental laws. The Sierra Club’s membership in Michigan is now 18,000, up from 10,000 at the start of the 1990s. More attention is paid to environmental issues in the state media. And prominent Democrats preparing to run for governor next year, among them U.S. Representative David Bonoir, have called strengthening the state’s environmental programs one of the top campaign issues.

Gov. Engler spent a decade writing a new compact with citizens and his industrial allies that put jobs, profit, and growth ahead of any other social value. That compact shows signs of being rejected in Michigan. Environmental leaders and others intent on protecting public health and America’s resources will be equally successful in Washington by better understanding what happened in the states, opposing bad ideas at every turn, and rallying public support for environmentally sensitive alternatives.

Keith Schneider, an environmental writer and former national correspondent for The New York Times, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a 2,200-member research and advocacy organization he co-founded in 1995. Mr. Schneider’s work, and other examples of the Institute’s first-rate environmental journalism, can be seen at www.mlui.org-->www.mlui.org.

A version of this article was published on April 25, 2001 by gristmagazine.com

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