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GOP misses chance to reshape environmental laws

December 15, 2006|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

If ever there was a Congress in which Republicans were positioned to remake the nation's environmental laws, it was the 109th. But by the time the session ended last week, the GOP's environmental agenda had been largely thwarted.

Whether it was rewriting the Endangered Species Act, opening up most of the nation's coastline to oil and gas drilling, or selling off public lands in the West, Republicans failed to enact a range of ambitious proposals.

"It was the best chance for Republican-shaped initiatives for as long we can remember," said Daniel Kemmis, senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.

Republicans began the session with majorities in both chambers, a sympathetic president, and a tough-talking property rights champion in charge of a key environmental committee.

That they went home empty-handed, Kemmis and others say, is testament to a changing, greening West; the pitfalls of overreaching; and an emerging alliance between environmentalists and a traditional GOP base, hunters and anglers.

"The so-called hook-and-bullet constituency has become more concerned about protecting public lands, protecting open space in general. I don't think that's going to change," he said.

Though Republicans came close to opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the goal eluded them.

Ben Lieberman of the conservative Heritage Foundation called it "quite striking" that the legislation died despite $3-a-gallon gasoline, an oilman in the White House and growing public support. The GOP expanded oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico but did not muster enough votes to lift a long-standing federal ban on new oil and gas drilling off much of the nation's coastline.

"I just don't think the Republicans made the case that these changes could be made in an environmentally friendly way and in a way that would make a real difference at the pump or in terms of electricity prices," Lieberman said.

A proposal by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) to slash royalty payments on oil shale production on federal land died. So too did a House-passed bill that would have restricted environmental reviews of salvage logging to remove dead or dying trees in national forests.

Legislation tying the designation of new federal wilderness areas in Utah and Idaho to the sale of public lands for development never reached Bush's desk. The administration proposal to raise money for a rural schools program by selling off national forest parcels was scrapped in the face of congressional opposition.

And Pombo's legislation to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, requiring the government to pay property owners if the law restricted their land use, was blocked in the Senate by moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.

Neither Pombo nor Chafee will return to the Capitol to continue their duel, as both were defeated in the midterm election.

As House resources chairman, Pombo, a passionate foe of the Endangered Species Act and a defender of property rights, was in a key position to advance his agenda. But his reputation for anti-environmental rhetoric made the seven-term incumbent a polarizing figure.

"I think anything Pombo did would have been perceived as overreaching because people expected his committee to gut the ESA. But I really don't see his bill as overreaching," said Terry Anderson, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "I think it was in large part a dose of what conservative conservation would be about."

Pombo also talked of revamping another pillar of environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act. That effort never made it out of committee.

"It's really hard to get controversial bills passed; it takes a long time," mused Myron Ebell, an energy expert with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-market group.

Wilderness Society Executive Vice President Don Barry, an Interior Department official under the Clinton administration, said the GOP had its own boldness to blame for the string of defeats.

He cited the Bush administration's proposal to auction national forest parcels. The idea inflamed sportsmen groups concerned about losing access to public land and was eventually disowned by even conservative Republican senators in the West.

"I think it was a huge miscalculation," Barry said. "They found the hunting and fishing community just totally in revolt. It blew up in their faces, and the next thing you know, you have people like [Montana GOP Sen.] Conrad Burns denouncing it."

The GOP won passage of forest thinning legislation in 2003, and made a variety of other gains, though most of them resulted from the Bush administration's use of executive power.

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