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Green in Gridlock

By Paul W. Hansen
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page A23

While President Bush and many of today's Republican leaders seem to be out of step with the American public and much of their own party when it comes to environmental conservation, the tactics of some environmentalists also play a significant role in creating the political polarization and stalemate that have caused gridlock for more than a decade on environmental policy.

The environment is not a "liberal" cause; it is everyone's cause. An overwhelming percentage of Americans care deeply about conservation of natural resources and the environment. This includes strong majorities across all major demographic categories: ethnic, religious, racial, age, gender and political party affiliation.

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There are a variety of theories on the causes of the gridlock on such a popular issue: corporate shortsightedness, the influence of money on the legislative process, the alleged interest of Democrats in having the environment as a perennial campaign issue and the perceived antipathy of Republican leaders. But while all play a role, the polarizing tactics and strategies of some environmentalists are part of the problem as well.

During the 1990s the major laws governing the fundamental environmental infrastructure of our nation -- the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and Superfund -- were all due to be reauthorized. All had been reauthorized before, some several times. But in the past 15 years, none of them has been reauthorized.

During that time progress came to a stop on emerging issues, such as climate change -- which threatens the entire planet -- and on old ones, such as improving energy efficiency, which saves money, prevents pollution and reduces dependence on foreign oil. The Environmental Protection Agency tells us that 860 billion gallons of raw sewage still flow into our waterways annually. And while our air is cleaner, it is still not healthful.

All of the major environmental acts of Congress that we rely on were imperfect bipartisan compromises. In the current climate, however, we have, by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, chosen in effect to accomplish nothing. When we stop compromising in a bipartisan fashion, environmental progress stops as well.

For example, the Wilderness Act of 1964 was a compromise. It protected only a fraction of the land that qualified. But it did set up an inclusive process for adding areas, and every president since 1964 has signed bills protecting additional land. Few environmentalists would argue that passing the Wilderness Act was a bad idea -- yet, would they support this compromise if it were before them today?

In 1990, the last time the Clean Air Act was reauthorized, it was a compromise. Acid rain emissions were reduced by 40 percent, but not by the 60 percent that scientists told us was needed. Toxic mercury emissions were not controlled at all. It wasn't a perfect bill, but it reduced air pollution. Clearly, we are better off than we would be if it had not passed. But would such a compromise be acceptable if it were being considered today?

Before the 1990s, the leaders of national conservation groups took the political support and public opinion available to them and, in most cases, made the best deal possible. The nation passed some important, though imperfect, legislation.

In the early '90s, this dynamic changed. When Republican leaders attempted to roll back long-standing protections, national environmental leaders came under intense criticism from some local and more radical environmental groups for being too close to power, too accommodating and too compromising. This dynamic is reemerging today.

A lack of civility in the rhetoric and tactics used by some groups also has played a role in the stalemate on many current environmental issues. When communications about the environment are too extreme, too dire or too partisan, large segments of the public tune out and dismiss the message. Presenting solutions, expressing concern about lost opportunities or engaging Americans in "can do" thinking are better ways to generate interest in conservation.

Results from the last elections are a good case in point. Voters in 121 communities in 24 states passed ballot measures to create $3.25 billion in public funding to protect land as parks and open space. Since 1996, 1,065 out of 1,376 conservation ballot measures have passed in 43 states, raising more than $27 billion in funding for land conservation.

When given the chance, Americans vote for conservation solutions -- even if it means a tax increase. If you look at the campaign materials for these initiatives, you see little strident rhetoric and a lot of practical solutions.

The case for environmental protection is itself a great one, full of compelling examples of smart solutions that are good for the environment and the economy at the same time. Americans want environmental solutions. They deserve a better commitment to finding those solutions from Congress, the administration, business groups and the environmental community.

The writer is executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America.

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