Barbara Boxer, Environmental Lion

Senator Barbara Boxer at a water treatment plant in Calexico, 2011 | Photo: Office of Senator Barbara Boxer

In the wake of her announcement that she would not be seeking re-election in 2016, praise has been rolling in from most quarters for Senator Barbara Boxer, California's so-called "liberal lion." The nickname is well-earned. Consistently left of center since her election to the House of Representatives in 1983, Boxer has taken prominent stands on issues ranging from foreign policy to education to civil rights.

One of a handful of Senators to vote against the Iraq War in 2002, Boxer filibustered to prevent confirmation of controversial U.N. ambassador-designate John Bolton in 2005, led Senate criticism of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, sponsored a successful 1997 Senate resolution urging the Clinton White House not to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan due to their abuses of women's rights, and co-sponsored the Title X Family Planning Services Act of 2005.

In other words, there's little in Boxer's record in the House and Senate to make an ardent liberal unhappy. And most of the Senator's positions on environmental issues have been no exception.

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The League of Conservation Voters, which tracks environmental legislation in Congress and how Representatives and Senators vote on that legislation, gave Boxer a 100 percent rating in 2013, the most recent year for which the group has released its "scorecard." That was the sixth year in a row Boxer had won the League's highest rating.

Which is not to say that the League of Conservation Voters has always seen eye to eye with Barbara Boxer. In 2007 Boxer won a mere 80 percent rating, after missing a couple of floor votes on energy efficiency and voting against a measure that would have prioritized Army Corps of Engineers projects and ruled out those that were wasteful and environmentally destructive. During her tenure in the House, Boxer ran afoul of the League's scorecard a number of times, mainly on water-related votes such as this 1990 measure by her California colleague Vic Fazio to make taxpayers pay to keep water in the Sacramento River for the salmon.

Votes like that, and a number of missed votes over the years, have depressed Boxer's lifetime Scorecard rating to 90 percent. (There are 28 sitting senators with better lifetime scores.)

But the League's scorecard counts only votes. It doesn't count the work that goes into shepherding bills through the sausage-making process, or fighting to keep them from reaching the floor. And as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and Chair of that Committee from 2007 until this year, Barbara Boxer has had more chances than most Senators to influence environmental legislation.

Two of the issues where Boxer's work has had the greatest impact involve a remote polar wilderness and your kitchen's pantry. In 2003, Boxer led the successful opposition on the Senate floor to a measure that would have opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. Energy development in ANWR is one of those issues that will likely come up over and over until we no longer use petroleum, and Boxer played a role in 2005 when the proposal to tap ANWR's oil resurfaced.

As for that kitchen cupboard: In 1995, an odd coalition of Mexican tuna companies, anti-environmental American legislators, the Clinton administration, and Greenpeace attempted to rewrite American laws protecting dolphins in the Eastern Pacific from tuna fishing boats.

In 1990, Congress had passed the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act, which amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act to prohibit U.S. companies from importing tuna that had been caught by setting nets on dolphins. Most large American tuna companies were already complying with the guidelines as a result of voluntary agreements with the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute. (Full disclosure: I worked for Earth Island for a number of years after the events I describe here took place.)

In 1995, Republican legislators in the famously anti-environmental 104th Congress sought to rewrite the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act so that it no longer prohibited setting nets on dolphins. As the main corporate interests standing to gain from such a rewrite were Mexican, the Clinton administration -- pushing at the time to settle the pending North American Free Trade Agreement -- signed on to the campaign to rewrite the law so that dolphin-unsafe tuna could be sold in the U.S.

And though the vast majority of the U.S environmental movement opposed the attempt to weaken dolphin protections, which they dubbed the "Dolphin Death Act," Greenpeace USA lent its support to rewriting the law to allow setting nets on dolphins as long as no dolphins were documented as killed by the nets. Greenpeace USA's version of the law would have relied on on-ship monitors to determine whether any dolphins were injured. Of course, the law as passed in 1990, which Greenpeace USA sought to change, prevented the very practice that would have injured those dolphins.

The main reason that the "Dolphin Death Act" didn't make it to President Clinton's desk in 1995 was that Barbara Boxer threatened to block it by way of a filibuster. Instead, the Senate agreed to a delayed version in which 18 months of study of tuna fishing techniques and their effect on marine mammals would be used as a guide to making any necessary adjustments to dolphin protection law.

Those studies by the National Marine Fisheries Service were already underway. They ended up showing that dolphins were faring badly under pressure from tuna fisheries, but that didn't keep then-Vice President Al Gore from doing a bit of arm-twisting to bust up Boxer's pro-dolphin Senatorial coalition in 1997, at which point the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act was weakened to more or less the standard proposed by Greenpeace USA.

But as a result of the massive public support for dolphin protection and for Boxer's delaying tactics in the Senate, major American tuna companies still abide by the stronger language enacted in 1990, which means that if you look for the right label on your can of tuna -- and there are some misleading ones -- you can be reasonably certain no dolphins were deliberately harmed in catching your tuna. The right label doesn't mean no other important species were harmed, or that the tuna was caught sustainably. But it does mean that the fishing boats didn't deliberately harm dolphins, and Barbara Boxer is among those we have to thank for that fact, 20 years after her threatened filibuster.

As mentioned before, the Senator doesn't have a perfect environmental record. Aside from those occasional misguided water votes in the past, Boxer has opposed efforts to legalize cannabis in California, and pot's illegality is responsible for an increasing amount of environmental damage from illegal grows on public land and from smuggling across the backcountry of the Southwest.

But her pro-environment record is extensive enough to merit resorting to bullet points. Over the course of her career so far, Boxer:

  • brought public attention to the threats that arsenic, perchlorate, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) pose to drinking water supplies and public health;
  • blocked one legislative move after another that would have established a radioactive waste dump in California's Mojave Desert;
  • has been a consistent critic of the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
  • wrote the California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, which would have protected 2.5 million areas of public lands, and got portions of that Act passed into law, including the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, which protected more than 160,000 acres of wilderness in the northwestern part of the state;
  • was a leading opponent of oil drilling off the California coast;
  • was among the first to propose carbon cap-and-trade policies for California and for the nation.

That's necessarily an incomplete list.

Speculation about whose hats will be tossed into the proverbial ring to take Boxer's Senate seat in 2016 are already flying. The election is a long way away, and this is a Senate seat with a history of last-minute electoral reversals.

But one thing is certain: when it comes to the environment, Boxer's successor will have a lot to live up to.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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