Call of the wild: Who will answer?

A normal wrap up of the year’s environment would include a list of acres purchased or not, wetlands protected or not, initiatives started or not. The year 2004 deserves a closer look.
“We can’t even describe what we’re seeing,” said Sheila Watt-Cloutier to Reuters recently because her constituents, Inuit natives, have no words in their language for the impacts of global warming they are directly witnessing.

In the majority party—those leaders who believe that self-interest expressed through the marketplace protects the air, water and natural resources better than rules and regulations—a significant subset also believes failure to protect the environment is good news, signaling the long-awaited Second Coming.

Glenn Scherer recently noted in Grist magazine that in the U.S. Congress, “45 senators and 186 representatives in 2004 earned 80 to 100 percent approval rankings from the nation’s three most influential Christian right advocacy groups—the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council. Many of those same lawmakers also got flunking grades—less than 10 percent, on average—from the League of Conservation Voters last year.”

In the 2004 presidential campaign, politically active environmentalists had good reason to rush to the upwind side of Sen. John Kerry’s listing ship: The stern-father model of government, which now defines in important respects the majority party, has emboldened lower-level political appointees, agency officials and legislators to freeze out conservation groups that are not compliant with agendas that have more to do with earthly profits than heavenly reward.

The cue comes from the top. When diversity of opinion is banned in the White House, as it is with respect to environmental issues, and dissent banished from hallways of power, at the bottom of the political food chain no “permission” is needed to reach predetermined conclusions.

This year was bad for science, which can enlighten policy debates for decision makers and the public.
Consider Florida and the stubborn insistence of Gov. Jeb Bush to push a major economic development project, the Scripps Institute, into a location surrounded by threatened wetlands in West Palm Beach.
Earlier this year, staff at Florida’s environmental agency were warned not to interfere with the Scripps approval process. One employee dared to express his concerns in public.

Herb Zebuth, an expert in interpreting computer data on wetlands, concluded in early 2004 that the South Florida Water Management District had misrepresented the modeling related to the likely impacts of the Scripps development on discharges of dirty water to the Loxahatchee Estuary and efforts to restore the federal Wild and Scenic Loxahatchee River.

For expressing his concerns he was rebuked and, later in the year, retired.

After Zebuth testified on behalf of conservation groups suing to stop the Scripps project, Gov. Bush attacked the dissenters as “legal terrorists,” words calculated to trigger the year’s most valuable political weapon—fear that parts winners from losers as cleanly as a knife.

In a recent interview with the Gainesville Sun, Florida’s environmental chief, Colleen Castille, offered that view from another perspective. “On a spectrum of the Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy, they understand the business perspective of Florida as a community,” she said. On the other hand, “The Sierra Club and the Clean Water Network are very focused on protection at all costs. ‘It’s not realistic.’ What is realistic,” Castille said, “is compromise and flexibility.”

Retired biology professor Peter Rauch tersely responded to Castille on the Sierra Club Everglades Web site, “What is real is that all the compromise and flexibility have long since been mined from Florida’s non-renewable, non-recoverable, non-restorable natural resources. Florida’s habitats and the environmental driving forces or mechanisms which operated to perpetuate them are no longer available to us to negotiate over.”

When Americans have the chance to directly vote on the environment, their support is overwhelming and unequivocal. But there are no votes for people in places where lobbyists and legislators turn the intent of laws into smaller ratios of rules and regulations.

For the environment, there was a radical shift in 2004, and it has nothing to do with buying land and moving dirt in vast, complicated schemes whose outcome won’t be known until current office holders are long gone.

Conservation groups are now supplicants in a political environment in which science serves predetermined meaning to which words are carefully molded, like using “climate variability”—the latest from the Bush White House—as though the only accommodation Americans have to make to global warming is to behave more like the variable-speed motors they own.

It is already clear that the federal deficit will cut funding for the environment. But our fetuses and bodies are being contaminated by endocrine disrupters without regulations, rocket-fuel traces are infiltrating milk supplies without rules, effluent is permitted to seep into drinking-water aquifers, and the majority party churns forward to weaken key environmental laws.

If the news of 2004 is that conservation groups cannot protect the environment and the stern father of government won’t, in 2005 the question is: Who will?


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