It's probably going too far to say that former president and onetime oilman George W. Bush was a better conservationist than President Obama. But they're not as far apart as most people think.
True, Bush and his Interior secretary, Gale A. Norton, treated federal lands like a private commodity, opening millions of acres of forest to logging and greatly expanding mining and oil drilling with little heed of the environmental costs. But to his credit, Bush set aside more ocean for federal protection than any president in history, creating three national monuments in far-flung Pacific islands and atolls and a separate 140,000-square-mile monument from Kauai to Midway. These teeming ocean habitats are protected from undersea mining, and fishing there is strictly limited.
What has Obama done? After former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a hero to many conservationists because of his strong tenure during the Clinton administration, criticized Obama's record in a speech before the National Press Club this week, Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff responded that Obama had protected more than 2 million acres of wilderness and miles of scenic rivers. If Obama is going to take credit for this, he might as well take credit for the financial meltdown, because both happened before his time. In the waning days of the Bush administration, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed through a two-year omnibus bill that represented the biggest expansion of wilderness protection in a quarter of a century; because Bush was gone by the time it was approved by the then-Democrat-majority House, Obama had the privilege of signing it. But he had little or no influence over its passage.
Meanwhile, as an aggressive new majority of Republicans in the House takes steps to undo years of progress on conservation, Obama's response has been silent acquiescence. The budget bill passed by Congress and signed by Obama in April contained appalling riders inserted by House Republicans, stripping protection from wolves in five Western states — the first time Congress has ever removed a species from the endangered list — and undoing an initiative from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to identify and inventory public lands eligible for designation as "wilderness," providing them a higher level of protection. Obama could have sent a strong signal about such riders by vetoing the bill, or threatening to veto it if the riders were included. He did neither.
Yes, we understand the political pressures the president is under — "It's the economy, stupid." Obama wants to be reelected in 2012, and he's trying to avoid battles over environmental protections that some perceive as harmful to economic growth. But we agree with Babbitt, who pointed out in his speech that American voters support conservation, making it a political winner, not a loser. They'll back a president who stands up for preserving public lands for the public.