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Clinton Hugs Not Trees but Gore Campaign

Environment: The movement has become 'a wholly owned subsidiary' of the DNC.

October 21, 1999|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

It has been billed as the greatest act of land preservation since Teddy Roosevelt created the national forests. On Oct. 13, President Clinton made his way, by way of helicopter and sports utility vehicle, to the George Washington forest in the Shenandoah Mountains, where he disclosed his plan to protect 40 million acres of roadless land in national forests across the country. Amid the ecstatic cheers of environmentalists bused to the site by the National Audubon Society, Clinton declared that "in the end, we're going to protect all this," gesturing as he spoke to the surrounding trees.

Those cheering environmentalists should have been warned by Clinton's means of transportation to the great event. The first flaw in his plan is that it appears to prohibit road-building but not logging. These days, helicopter logging is becoming increasingly common as a way of extracting the trees from the cut-over terrain to the nearest available road.

Logging won't be banned, it seems. Nor will livestock grazing, mining or dirt bikes. The plan falls short of protecting all roadless areas. Steve Kelly, a feisty green organizer in Montana, had it right when he said, "The president tried to redefine sex, now he's trying to redefine wilderness."

There are around 60 million acres of unexploited forest under federal supervision, and Clinton's plan applies to only 40 million of them. More than half the area covered by the Clinton plan is composed of rocks and ice, with no trees. By contrast, the 20 million acres that have been excluded are mostly forested terrain. So it's scarcely surprising that Patti Rodgers, spokesperson for the Willamette National Forest, said the plan would have very little effect on logging in that forest, an assessment that was foreshadowed by Clinton when he said, "It's very important to point out that we are not trying to turn our national forests into museums." The Forest Service calculates that under the plan, timber harvests will decline by only 28 million board feet. The annual take from national forests is 4 billion board feet.

Another huge defect in the plan is the apparent omission from its purview of the nation's largest and most ecologically intact national forest, the Tongass in Alaska, thus deferring to the political power of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). This brings us to the plan's real intent, which has little to do with preservation and everything to do with the politics of the next 13 months.

What is afoot? The long process of review--probably 18 months--means that the executor of the plan will be the next president. What better way to congeal support for Al Gore, with leaders of the major green groups presaging a forest holocaust if George W. Bush wins the White House?

The announcement of the plan comes when Gore sorely needs to buttress his credibility with environmentalists. Friends of the Earth has endorsed Gore's rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill Bradley. Clinton took care to emphasize that the plan's architect was Gore, along with George Frampton, head of the government's Council on Environmental Quality. Frampton was once head of the Wilderness Society, with Richard Hoppe as his right-hand man. These days Hoppe is one of the leaders of the Heritage Forest Campaign, which has most actively promoted the roadless area initiative. The Heritage Forest Campaign has no membership, only a substantial staff paid for by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which committed $1.4 million to the roadless area campaign.

Thus we have Pew, the richest and most influential foundation in the environmental sector, creating Heritage Forest to advance a politically motivated initiative in an election year. Staffers of the Heritage Forest Campaign have been telling environmental organizers not to criticize the plan. "It is VITAL," ran an Oct. 11 Heritage Forest e-mail, "that we respond immediately to early news reports of this effort with praise and consensus . . . If not, we jeopardize the whole deal."

The plan testifies to what the mainstream environmental movement has become: a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee. As Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter A. DeFazio said, "Forest policy is too serious to be the theme of the day in some attempt to boost Gore's flagging presidential campaign, which is what I think it's all about."

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