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Environmentalists Say Earth Day Activism More Urgent This Year

Nature: Conservationists worry that the Bush administration will reverse years of progress. But conservatives say the doomsayers have it wrong.

April 22, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For three decades, Earth Day has offered die-hard preservationists and once-a-year devotees the chance to clean beaches, picnic at the park and pay homage to the environment.

But environmentalists, alarmed by a recent blitz of decisions by the Bush administration, say today's 31st annual Earth Day has more riding on it than usual.

"I think Earth Day 2001 has a definite sense of urgency to it. What we're seeing in Washington has made us even more motivated to do what we can to educate the public," Evelyn Guerra, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based Earth Day Network, said Saturday.

Indeed, the second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives charged in a radio address Saturday that President Bush, in his first three months in office, "has treated the big polluters to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of environmental giveaways."

Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) charged that the administration's recent actions--including its rejection of tougher standards for arsenic in drinking water and carbon dioxide emissions from power plants--signal that Bush is willing to reverse years of environmental progress since the first Earth Day was commemorated in San Francisco in 1969.

John S. Glenn, a Sierra Club leader in Florida who is active in wetland protection, said he too is worried about what the Bush administration will mean for the environment.

"Big Oil is in charge now. Big corporate America is in charge," he said. "They want to turn every acre of dirt into cash."

But conservatives counter that the doomsayers have it wrong.

An environmental study released last week by the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative California-based group, said that, despite the scare tactics of activists and the media, environmental protection has been "the greatest success story of the last 30 years."

There have been marked improvements in air quality, water quality and toxic emissions, the institute noted. And positive environmental trends "are likely to continue" in the years ahead as a result of improved technology, market-based incentives and local activism, it said.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, speaking with reporters Thursday, said Bush is merely seeking to review environmental regulations imposed by the Clinton administration in its final days. "In many cases, this administration will go beyond what the previous administration did in protecting the environment."

Does that mean, Fleischer was asked, that Bush should be considered a "green" president?

"He's a balanced president," Fleischer answered.

In just the last week, the Bush administration has upheld Clinton rules requiring thousands of additional businesses to disclose their emission of potentially toxic lead and announced that the United States will sign an international treaty aimed at banning toxic chemicals.

Activists charged that these steps were a transparent effort by the White House to appear more environmentally friendly in advance of Earth Day. But Fleischer rejected that assertion, saying that, "on this topic, the president's message to staff has been very straight and consistent, and that is, take actions based on science, not based on public relations."

Organizers say that hundreds of thousands of people around the world will voice their strong commitment to the environment today at more than 1,500 Earth Day events planned worldwide, from a festival in Malibu and a kayak-driven water cleanup in Marina del Rey to mountain climbing in North Carolina and a nature hunt in Malaysia.

Events at UCLA and many other locations worldwide will highlight the theme of renewable energy, a cause organizers say has been made more critical by the energy crisis in California and by the Bush administration's proposed budget cuts in energy research.

More than 110 Earth Day-related events were planned for California alone, many of which began Saturday. Other events around the world included a "car-free" day marked in 30 countries and at the United Nations, as well as fairs, lectures and concerts.

Earth Day organizers say they want to remind people about the fragile nature of the environment and drive home the point that everyone--from government leaders on down--has a role in protecting it.

"If it hasn't become clear to President Bush already from all the national and international criticism, I think he'll get the message very soon that the environment is not just a partisan concern," said Vickery Prongay, an Earth Day Network organizer in Seattle. "This is an issue that people care deeply about."

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