Environmental SmackDown: Green Politics in the 2012 Presidential Campaign

Bruce Babbit, left, and Barack Obama, right
Bruce Babbit, left, and Barack Obama, right

Two cheers Bruce Babbitt. Last week, the former Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton Administration twice threw down on President Obama, angered that the current administration has not stood up to House Republicans, who've been busily gutting sacrosanct environmental regulations and the budgets needed to enforce them. Each time, Babbitt used the same term to denounce the White House: he called them munchkins.

However mild (ok, laughable) the dismissive, Babbitt's message apparently got through. The current Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, promised last Thursday that the administration is going to redouble its efforts to pass a package of wilderness legislation this congressional session; his announcement effectively makes the status of the public lands an issue in the run up to the 2012 campaign.

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The setting of his announcement was not by happenstance. Salazar proclaimed the administration's new intentions at the Wilderness Society's annual awards dinner in Washington at which Babbitt was honored with the Ansel Adams Prize for his staunch defense of the public lands during his tenure at Interior (and what a tenure--he may be its second-most successful administrator after the legendary Harold Ickes, who served from 1933-1946).

Wise to the ways of Washington, Babbitt copped a wait-and-see attitude: "Ken, I want you to know that when I used the word munchkins, I wasn't referring to anybody in the Interior Department," the former Arizona governor said after he picked up his prize. "But I can't say the same thing about the crowd at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Who can? The Obama administration's environmental record has been anemic. Even its much-ballyhooed America's Great Outdoors initiative, with its laudable goal of reconnecting us to our public lands, has gotten little traction on the Hill. It hasn't partly because Republicans have threatened to slash the budgets; hold up the appropriations of such land-management agencies as the Forest and Park Services, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish & Wildlife Service; and delay hearings on nominees to head those agencies. The GOP got very little presidential push back, and Salazar himself initially indicated that he would hold off on proposing any new wilderness designations. These white-flag concessions emboldened Republicans, and ever since they have ramped up their assaults.

Salazar understands the political dynamic the administration helped create. Which is why he cautioned the Wilderness Society audience--even as he was trying to align himself with its concerns--that budgetary politics might well derail his newfound commitments. This temporizing led the LA Times to editorialize this weekend that Obama is no Teddy Roosevelt.

That's a nice shot. But not an entirely accurate one: TR wasn't TR until after he had started his second term in office. Remember, Roosevelt finished out the last three and a half years of the assassinated William B. McKinley's presidency before winning the 1904 election.

Only then did he launched his major conservation campaign, including transferring millions of acres of forests from Interior to Agriculture in 1905, redesignating millions more as protected forests, and creating numerous wildlife sanctuaries and preserves. And it was five years into his presidency that the 1906 Antiquities Act allowed him to establish 18 national monuments, among them the Grand Canyon and California's Muir Woods.

Yet as soon as Roosevelt starting using these prerogatives of office, the Big-Stick President found himself confronted an intense revolt. Western congressional representatives, livestock, logging, and mining interests, and regional media clobbered the Roosevelt administration. They bottled up legislation; challenged the federal government in the courts; wrote blistering editorials about this Czarist executive branch; and took out their frustrations, violently at times, on local forest rangers. TR made conservation a lightening rod.

The same happened during the Clinton years, a fact that the LA Times and Babbitt seem to have forgotten. Confronted with a raucous, Gingrich-led House of Representatives, President Clinton, who no one has ever confused with his green running mate Al Gore, showed little interest in things environmental. Only after a persistent Secretary Babbitt kept whispering the question that a soon-to-be second-term president has the luxury of contemplating--what's your legacy going to be?--did our 42nd chief executive start acting as if the public lands mattered. When he did, as in September 1996 when he used the Antiquities Act to designate the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument , all hell broke loose. This political churning complicated Clinton's already limited capacity to govern.

A portion of the proposed addition to the Sheep Mountain Wilderness | Photo by Steve Evans, Friends of the River
A portion of the proposed addition to the Sheep Mountain Wilderness | Photo by Steve Evans, Friends of the River

None of this history can have been lost on President Obama, which explains, though does not excuse, his studied inaction. What then should he do? I thought you'd never ask. Two thoughts:

1. Ramp up the pressure on Congress to act on the wilderness designations that Salazar has promised to support. Any number of Republican congressionals has proposed wilderness areas. One of these is Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), a deeply conservative politician. He has been front and center in affirming his support for the "Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests Protection Act," responding to the broad and bipartisan enthusiasm for these wildlands in the foothill communities he represents. His constituents really want this bill to pass. The GOP base and party leadership do not. So when Dreier and his colleagues like Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who has introduced a similar bill for wilderness in northern San Diego County, claim to support important local protections when they're in California, but then vote against them in Washington, the President and Secretary Salazar need to call them out.

In short: be blunt. Be transparent. Be ruthless. Let the Republicans know that this is going to be the Democratic game plan, and stick to it.

2. But also change the nature of the game. Come out in full-throated support for another version of environmentalism that far too often is ignored by environmentalists. Focus on the cities and the metropolitan areas that now are home to 85% of all Americans. Their needs--human and natural--are neglected at our collective peril.

Unleash Lisa Jackson and the Environmental Protection Agency to make direct links between air and water pollution and the protection of public health. As soon as EPA's final report on pollutant levels in and around our children's schools is completed, for instance, the administration must press hard for tighter oversight and accountability through state and federal legislation. When Republicans balk, go straight to America's parents and teachers and make a powerful case for why the federal government is leading the charge for clean air, pure water, and healthy schools.

Make common cause with environmental-justice groups across the country forging new links between human well-being and welfare, landscape restoration, and social justice. Chicago Wilderness has been at the forefront of this effort as has the Friends of the LA River: for them, repairing natural systems is integral to neighborhood revitalization, job growth, and an enriched life. Local and consensus-driven organizations such as Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio, like SoCal's Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, have long fought to enhance the quality of lives and livelihoods in their respective regions. Draw connections between those working to clean up Seattle's Duwamish River, the toxic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, and the wetlands and bayous of Louisiana. These folks daily know by the air they breathe and the water they drink the critical power embedded in governmental directives whose enforcement is well funded.

Such contemporary examples have deep roots. A century ago, Congress passed the Weeks Act, which granted the federal government the authority and funds to purchase (mostly eastern) high-country watersheds that had been burned out and cut over. With the goal of regenerating forest cover and providing flood protection, grassroots activists, commercial interests, and rural townspeople pressured congress to enact the legislation.

So did Gifford Pinchot, founding chief of the US Forest Service, arguing that "a nation whose natural resources are destroyed must inevitably pay the penalty of poverty, degradation, and decay." The Weeks Act forestalled that grim outcome, creating roughly 20 million acres of national forests in the northeast, south, and mid-west and ensuring the nation's environmental health and economic growth.

A decade later, as governor of Pennsylvania, Pinchot widened his framework, agitating for what he called "human conservation." His idea was to integrate environmental restoration with community regeneration, transforming the urban and rural landscapes in which labored oppressed factory workers, impoverished farmers, and exploited miners; nothing else would improve their life chances.

Updating and refreshing Pinchot's perspective has been the contemporary environmental-justice movement, which emerged in the south and southwest in the 1970s, Ever since, it has identified and attacked the disproportionate burdens--toxic air, befouled water, inhumane living conditions--that America's dispossessed routinely shoulder. That's been as true in Houston, as in Warren County, North Carolina; Gary, Indiana and New York City. Los Angeles, too.

Historian Jennifer Price has made a compelling case that the LA River is emblematic of this emerging twenty-first-century environmentalism. It "locates its heart and soul in sustainable and equitable economic and social systems--and in sound and equitable public policies and investment," she writes. To restore the river means Angelenos must simultaneously clean up the "polluted and park-deprived neighborhoods" through which it flows.

This is the all-encompassing vision the Obama administration should adopt. Doing so will allow it to sidestep the older pro/con fights over wilderness and take its battle to the metropolitan streetscape in defense of those who live and work there. Of course we must have wildlands and back country, but we must also have wildness in the communities in which the mast majority of us reside. Defending wolves, preserving biodiversity, protecting vital groundwater, and punching holes in the concrete come from the same impulse. Each makes our planet more habitable, sustainable, and just.

This end result has a pair of political upsides. It would gain the Bruce Babbitt seal of approval and confound the GOP. Game on.

The top image on this post is a collage by two Flickr users, The Aspen Institute (left) and SS&SS (right). They were used under Creative Commons Licneses.

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