Inside the Capitol

Sunday, July 09, 2006

7-14 Is Bush Really Turning Green?

FRI, 7-14-06

SANTA FE -- All may not be as it appears. A few weeks ago, this column marveled at President George Bush's newly-discovered environmental concerns.
Our suddenly green president had declared the Northwest Hawaii archipelago a national monument. Newspapers hailed it as the largest act of conservation in history, the marine equivalent of Yellowstone National Park, a landmark conservation event, the largest marine protected area in the world, surpassing even Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
It doesn't get more revolutionary than that. But some National Park Service retirees, who say they are the only people connected with the park service who aren't afraid to talk, say that's not all there is to the story. Now some national newspaper columnists are beginning to fill in the rest of the picture.
Evidently, 90 percent of the Hawaiian area already was well protected and the national monument idea had been under study for many years. It wasn't as we originally were told that the president invited filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau over to his house one evening for movie night and one of the films was Cousteau's PBS documentary on the damage being done to the islands.
We're now hearing suggestions that it was a smokescreen for a number of exploitative fisheries bills and collateral moves to weaken protection of oceanic resources orchestrated by the notorious U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo. There also is conjecture that Bush's move was calculated to appeal to suburban congressional districts where Republicans are vulnerable and voters care about the environment.
But the set-aside of the 1,400-mile string of Hawaiian Islands wasn't the only favorable environmental action taken by the Bush administration lately. New Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne recently announced 800 miles of new hiking, biking, boat and historical trails. The following day, Kempthorne announced projects to restore more than 87,000 acres of wetlands.
Kempthorne also announced that he is ditching plans by former Interior Secretary Gale Norton to open national parks to commercial development, advertising, snowmobiling and off-road vehicles.
His accompanying statements made environmentalists even happier. "When there is a conflict between conserving resources unimpaired for future generations and the use of those resources, conservation will be predominant," Kempthorne said.
"That is the heart of these policies and the lifeblood of our nation's commitment to care for these special places and provide for their enjoyment. Park resources should be passed on to future generations in a better condition than currently exists."
That's all very impressive, but the next day environmentalists realized that this is no more than a return to the status quo. Kempthorne merely reaffirmed policies that have existed since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Should that get the Bush administration credit for being environmentally friendly?
The answers will come in what happens next. At present, national parks are withering away. Park budgets have been reduced every year of the Bush administration. The 2007 administration budget proposal will cover only 70 percent of anticipated park payrolls. The federal government's General Accounting Office estimates a $5 billion maintenance backlog.
A good chunk of this is at our own Carlsbad Caverns. National Park Service retirees living in the area worry that Rep. Steve Pearce, their member of Congress is not going to bat for his national park. He could do much as the chairman of Pombo's subcommittee on national parks, but his big worry seems to be that preservationists have been infiltrating the NPS the past 40 years.
Park officials, who are willing to talk, say they continue to put up a good front by trying to keep high visitor-use areas clean and neat. We'll see how much longer that can continue or if the president and Congress step up park funding.
Meanwhile there is a move in Congress to sell off some national parks in order to fund the rest. And, as usual, some members of Congress are trying to get areas in their states declared national parks, which will further stretch the national park budget.



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