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Can War-Ready Environmentalists Deal With Wilson? : Ecopolitics: The governor-elect has long been receptive to environmental concerns, but he's unlikely to respond to bully-boy tactics.

December 09, 1990|William Kahrl | William Kahrl is an editorial writer for the McClatchy Newspapers in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO — It might seem that the arrival in the governor's office of a leader with Pete Wilson's credentials as a supporter of coastal protection, clean air and comprehensive land-use planning bodes well for environmental interests, particularly after an administration whose record on the environment would make almost any gesture in the direction of environmental sensitivity look good. But are environmentalists in any mood for accommodation, mitigation and compromise? Or have they been on a war footing for so long that they've forgotten how to take advantage of the opportunities Wilson's moderation presents?

If George Bush's experience is any guide, Wilson may never enjoy the benefits of his good intentions. Bush, after all, seemed to have a good chance of earning a reputation as an environmental President, succeeding as he did the prince of environmental darkness. Instead, he has been confronted by an environmental community in which no good deed ever seems to go unpunished. Bush's positive steps on ozone depletion, clean air and coastal protection, for example, have generally been met with a sneer and dismissed as inadequate or insincere by the very organizations whose appeals he is answering.

These buffets so far haven't dampened Bush's determination to keep right on pitching for his own environmental objectives. But there's ample evidence to suggest that Wilson is somewhat less tolerant and forgiving of his critics and that, with him, the same bully-boy tactics by environmentalists could backfire.

The most recent evidence came in the closing hours of Congress, when Wilson balked at supporting a reclamation reform plan that would have changed the way the federal government provides cheap water for Western farmers. The bill's principal proponents, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez.) and the Natural Resources Defense Council, were counting on Wilson's support. When he initially expressed some reluctance, they responded with a furious attack, trying to force Wilson to negotiate by charging that he was bowing to pressure from agribusiness. But those charges misstated the situation, and the attack only seems to have stiffened Wilson's resolve against the bill.

What was surprising about the confrontation wasn't the outcome--Congress has been frustrating reclamation reform for generations--but rather Wilson's refusal to play the game. Instead of being goaded into some last-minute wheeling and dealing, as Miller and the environmentalists hoped, Wilson simply maneuvered to prevent the bill from coming to a vote--a result that infuriated the reformers only slightly more than it did all the Western agricultural interests who had been looking forward to the $1.5 billion in new water projects that the bill would have funded.

Wilson did the same with important environmental legislation for California when he refused, two years ago, despite intense environmental pressure, to support Sen. Alan Cranston's proposed desert wilderness bill. Here, too, Wilson did not oppose desert protection any more than he came out against reclamation reform in the confrontation with Miller. But he refused to go as far as the environmentalists wanted. And when they attempted to step up the political heat, he broke off discussions altogether. The results were both losses for the environmentalists.

A change of tactics by the defenders of nature doesn't just make sense as smart politics. The confrontational approach of the last 10 years is starting to eat away at some of the principles that were once a basic part of the environmentalists' own view of themselves and their responsibility to the public.

Whatever else they may have accomplished in this century, for example, environmentalists have always stood for the advancement of knowledge. All the critical battles in the 1930s about cost-benefit analyses and the modern court battles to generate ever more comprehensive environmental analyses have been aimed at improving public understanding. Sometimes, all that additional information has turned out to be irrelevant, ignored, slanted or incomplete. But the effort was always predicated on the assumption that public decision-making would be improved if we knew more about the possible environmental consequences of our actions.

Little of that impulse was evident, however, in the recent debates over Proposition 128, the unsuccessful Big Green initiative on the November ballot. Both sides campaigned largely on a theme of guilt by association. In the ballot pamphlet as well as the advertising campaigns, this was the Tom Hayden initiative as far as the opponents were concerned; the promoters of Big Green worked just as hard to convince the public that anyone on the other side had to be a tool of the chemical companies. That may be politics-as-usual for most people, but it's a lower standard than environmentalists once insisted the public should demand from its leaders.

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