WASHINGTON — As Bill Clinton steps up to his first litmus test as a champion of the environment today in a meeting with warring forest factions in the Northwest, he is not unlike Richard Nixon arriving in Beijing in 1972.
Because of Nixon's long history as an anti-Communist and his devout support among Republican conservatives, he had the political freedom to take a step that no Democrat dared risk--moving toward normal relations with China.
Similarly Clinton, because of the massive support he has enjoyed over the years from environmentalists, may have some political wiggle room in negotiating a solution to the long-running feud over the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest.
But while environmentalists, who still perceive the President as one of their own, are willing to give him some latitude, many are more than a little nervous about the potential outcome. Chief among their concerns is that Clinton will bend to economic pressures--as he has on several occasions already, in their view--and adopt what the environmental community sees as a short-term expedient in the forest dispute.
"We are worried," confessed Steve Moyer, a lobbyist for Trout Unlimited, "because Clinton is so heavily focused on jobs."
The test is set to begin in earnest this morning, when Clinton and Vice President Al Gore meet with factions in the long-running conflict of the Pacific Northwest.
On one side are the region's logging and timber interests, whose livelihood and way of life rest on their ability to harvest the miles and miles of dense, piney woods. On the other are environmentalists, bent on preserving the ancient foliage and such creatures as the spotted owl that inhabit them.
And there is ample evidence that, in seeking a solution, the President may use the latitude his pro-environment reputation has bought him.
Already, Clinton has made some decisions that have dismayed his environmental supporters--decisions that would have heaped scorn on other presidents, George Bush for one, who lacked Clinton's pro-environment record:
--Without warning, the new Administration moved to disband the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The agency had been ineffective at times, and during the Ronald Reagan Administration, it was largely ignored. But through good times and bad, it had faithfully overseen the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires government organizations to prepare highly detailed environmental impact statements showing the environmental consequences of actions they contemplate.
--Confronted with its first tough decision in enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, it extended protection to the California gnatcatcher, a tiny songbird inhabiting some of the state's most valuable real estate, but with conditions. Developers will be able to immediately build on their property if they participate in a state program to create a coastal preserve as gnatcatcher habitat.
--Under pressure from Western Democrats in the Senate, the White House earlier this week agreed to drop from its budget plan proposals for increased grazing fees and new royalties on hard rock minerals mined from public lands.
What especially caught attention with the forest conference only two days away was a decision to drop the planned phaseout of low-cost timber sales from national forests. Some of the major ones take place east of the Cascades and will be the subject of presentations that Clinton and Gore will hear today.