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Environmentalists baffled by Obama's strategy

The administration is defending in court environmental measures that the president once vowed to roll back. Officials say they have a plan, but some fear backpedaling.

June 21, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — As a candidate for president, Barack Obama wooed environmentalists with a promise to "support and defend" pristine national forest land from road building and other development that had been pushed by the George W. Bush administration.

But five months into Obama's presidency, the new administration is actively opposing those protections on about 60 million acres of federal woodlands in a case being considered by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The roadless issue is one of several instances of the administration defending in court environmental policies that it once vowed to end.

Its position has been a disappointment to environmentalists who had hoped for decisive action in rolling back Bush-era policies.

Administration officials say that in some cases, they are defending the policies to prevent the courts from settling the issues -- a prospect that would restrict the government's ability to set the environmental agenda. They say the task of setting policy is better left to government agencies and legislators.

"We have set out on a very clear path toward improving our nation's environmental laws and policies so they balance America's need for a strong, sustainable economy and a healthy environment," said Christine Glunz, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "That means taking short- and sometimes longer-term action."

Still, the strategy has puzzled some environmentalists because the administration has used the courts to backpedal from Bush policies in some areas, including spotted owl protection, energy efficiency standards and hazardous-waste burning.

Most prominently, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson dropped an appeal to the Supreme Court in a case that struck down Bush-era limits on mercury pollution from coal power plants, which environmentalists called too lax.

Whatever the overall strategy, the result has been a series of cases in which President Obama appears to be taking positions in court that run counter to his stated goals.

The Interior Department this spring, for example, defended a Bush plan to lease western Colorado's picturesque Roan Plateau for oil and gas drilling.

When the Bush administration announced the plan in 2008, then-Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado called it "the unsound product of an administration that has lost sight of the balance" between developing and conserving public lands.

But today, Interior Secretary Salazar is opposing a court challenge from environmentalists to block the leases.

A Interior spokesman declined to comment on the department's position, but other officials noted that negotiations are underway on a possible out-of-court settlement, and the government's hand in these negotiations may be stronger if it continues to fight in court.

Administration lawyers have also fought environmentalists in court over a coal mining technique known as mountaintop removal.

The administration successfully argued this year that the court should reject the environmentalists' suit, in part because officials were already developing new standards for mountaintop mining projects.

They announced the standards last week, though many environmentalists criticized them for doing too little to protect against water pollution and other effects of mountaintop mining.

In the road-building case, the governor and the attorney general of Oregon urged the federal government in a letter last week to drop its opposition to a court ruling that tossed out Bush's roadless policy and reinstated Clinton-era protections.

"Obviously, we'd love for the Obama administration to withdraw the appeal," Oregon Atty. Gen. John Kroger said in a telephone interview, "or otherwise help us to get the right rule."

Administration officials say they are committed to protecting roadless areas but have decided to pursue the goal through policymaking rather than in the courts. As part of that effort, the Agriculture Department last month announced a de facto one-year moratorium on development in most roadless areas.

In broad terms, administration officials say relying on court cases to deal with such issues entails greater delays and uncertainties.

"Our judgment is, we're going to have these court cases for a long time to come, and therefore we'd have uncertainty for a long time to come," said Robert Bonnie, a senior advisor in the Agriculture Department, which is responsible for a large proportion of federal forest lands.

Some environmental groups warn, however, that there is a risk to the strategy of opposing an issue to ultimately support it.

If the courts agree with the government and allow the building of more roads in wilderness areas, the administration could face enormous difficulties in achieving its ultimate goal of keeping the roads out.

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jtankersley@latimes.com

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