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Land of Many Uses and Abuses

November 20, 1988|Wallace Stegner | Wallace Stegner's most recent book is "Crossing to Safety" (Random House)

LOS ALTOS HILLS, CALIF. — To environmentalists, the prospects offered by President George Bush do not look rosy. There has not been an environmentally sensitive Republican Administration since the days of Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of this century. Ronald Reagan had the worst environmental record of any President in U.S. history, and Bush was intimately associated with the Reagan policies for eight years.

Though he did support one or two clean-air moves, Bush also supported letting the automobile industry delay compliance with nitrogen oxide emission standards, opposed acid rain legislation, approved oil exploration in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, urged repeal of automobile fuel economy standards and backed Reagan's veto of the Clean Water Act. He chaired three task forces that advocated letting the Environmental Protection Agency relax its phase-down of lead in gasoline, proposed easing EPA standards for hazardous waste facilities and suspended regulations restricting discharge of industrial toxins into sewers. The League of Conservation Voters, assessing Bush's environmental record, gave him a D. Nearly every time the environment clashed with business profits during the 1980s, the environment lost--and George was there.

Nonetheless, as Reagan before him, Bush declares himself an environmentalist, and, in one statement, seemed to promise change: "I think for too long we've given the playing field away to the Democrats on the environment. I want to make the environment a Republican issue."

That line may have been mere campaign rhetoric. It is without specifics and the emphasis on political advantage, on gaining environmental votes, does not display real concern for the planet's irreplaceable and gravely threatened air, water and land resources.

Still, until he appoints the people who will carry out his policies, such declarations are all we have to judge whether Bush will deviate from the cowboy policies of his predecessor. Reagan is so dazzled by the entrepreneurial qualities that "won the West" that he cannot comprehend them as environmental rape. Conceivably Bush can. If he really means to put the GOP back into environmentalism--and make it the bipartisan concern it used to be and ought to be--what would a Californian and card-carrying environmentalist like me want to see him do?

It is like pulling on a slippery wishbone. But let us pull, and wish.

I would like to see Bush throw his weight--and bring to his side a large constituency that is suspicious--against oil exploration in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and oil drilling off the California coast. To make that change, he would have to clean house in the Department of the Interior, from the secretary on down.

As long as we are wishing, why not wish that, for his Interior secretary, Bush appointed someone like Bruce Babbitt of Arizona who, though a Democrat, knows more and cares more about the environment than anyone in Interior since 1980? And what a splendid way to make the Democrats forget the late campaign.

I would like to see him reverse Reagan policy and do something about acid rain--and here Bush has been specific in saying he will. I would like to see on his desk, signed, the Desert Protection Act, rescuing 12,000 square miles of California from careless and often irreparable damage. I would like him to push for wilderness legislation in Utah, Idaho and other states where Reagan's sagebrush rebel friends have been holding it up. I would like to see him give the EPA back the teeth Reagan pulled.

Finally, as a high priority, I would like to see him work with Congress to bring the National Forest Service, once a bureau with high motives and morale, back into the service of the public. In that bureau's history he will find some stirring examples of Republican activism on behalf of the environment.

For the national forests are primarily a GOP accomplishment. They were born out of the nation's horrified reaction to the unauthorized logging that left Michigan a stump patch and sent the pine areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota down the Mississippi as lumber rafts bigger than football fields. Most of that lumber came off the public domain; few ever got a permit to cut it, few paid for what they cut. In one lifetime, Dvan Zaslowsky says in "These American Lands," we deforested an area the size of Europe.

To save something before it all went, Congress, in 1891, authorized the President to set aside forest reserves from the public domain. Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, promptly reserved 13 million acres. Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, made the process bipartisan by reserving another 20 million. It remained for Republican Theodore Roosevelt to do the most, with a total of 80 million acres.

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