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New Agenda for Nature in Congress

Environmentalists say the Republicans' leadership choices will aid business and end the party's tradition of conservation.

January 25, 2003|Richard Simon and Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) walk the corridors of the U.S. Capitol in cowboy boots. Both also rail against environmental regulations they consider scientifically dubious and overly burdensome to business.

Now they have the power to do something about it.

Pombo, a rancher who has crusaded to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, is the new chairman of the House Resources Committee. Inhofe, who once called the Environmental Protection Agency a "Gestapo" bureaucracy, is the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) is the new chairman of the House subcommittee that appropriates money for the Interior Department. A registered forester, he pushed a bill through the House in the 1990s that temporarily removed protections from certain timber harvests.

This trio is among a group of pro-business conservatives with reputations for attacking environmental laws who now control committees charged with managing public lands and regulating pollution. In the new, Republican-controlled Congress, these chairmen will be central figures in advancing President Bush's agenda, which includes opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas exploration and allowing more logging in national forests.

They already are testing their clout.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who has taken the gavel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, hopes to win approval of Arctic oil drilling by using a parliamentary device to overcome a threatened Democratic filibuster.

Environmentalists say the leadership selections signal that Republicans have made a U-turn from the days when they chose lawmakers such as the late Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a champion of environmental protection who helped shepherd the 1990 revisions of the Clean Air Act through Congress.

"The Republican leadership has slammed the door on the party's tradition of conservation in order to open for business with corporate polluters who gave money to their campaigns," said Alys Campaigne, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Republicans reject the view that they are despoilers of the environment. "It's just that I come from a business background," Inhofe said. "I know that bureaucracies, if left alone, can become abusive."

Inhofe does not apologize for being the only senator to vote against the $7.8-billion federal commitment to restore the Florida Everglades, a pet project of the president and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Inhofe said the project's costs outweighed its benefits.

Now Inhofe is the chairman of the committee that will decide whether parts of the plan are implemented.

Inhofe and his staff outlined an agenda for this Congress that includes exempting the Pentagon from an array of environmental laws and introducing more cost-benefit analysis into regulatory decisions.

Will Inhofe be willing to take on President Bush on the Everglades plan and other topics? The senator has signaled he hopes to dilute one of the administration's environmental priorities.

The Bush administration has proposed for the first time regulating mercury emissions from power-plant smokestacks. Inhofe spokesman Mike Cantanzaro said the senator sees regulating mercury as impractical.

The League of Private Property Voters calls Inhofe a "champion" and regularly gives him perfect scores on its legislative report card.

In the House, Pombo has the same distinction. An ally of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Pombo jumped over more senior members to win the gavel of the House Resources Committee.

The owner of a cattle ranch in California's Central Valley, Pombo has been a longtime critic of the Endangered Species Act, contending that protections for certain species such as the kangaroo rat have ruined lives and livelihoods.

"We have to develop a way so it becomes a positive to have endangered species [on your property] instead of a negative," he said, suggesting that federal grants be offered to "encourage people to do things that attract wildlife and endangered species to their property."

He also has opposed a massive conservation-funding bill supported by many of his Republican colleagues. "Before we buy more land, we should do a better job of taking care of what we've got," he said.

He said the government should inventory the land it owns. "If there are lands that are not environmentally sensitive -- there's not a specific reason for them to be held by the public -- we should look at the possibility of selling those lands and using the money from that to purchase lands that are environmentally sensitive or lands that there's a reason for the public to own."

Pombo said he had not decided how to respond to the Pentagon's wish to be exempted from environmental laws.

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