By Donella Meadows
–September 21, 1995–
When there’s time for the press and the people to find out what’s happening in Washington, some of the worst ideas do get stopped. The commission to choose which national parks to sell was derailed in the House last week. The people heard about it and told their representatives that it’s just plain stupid to balance the budget by pawning precious national assets.
That’s a rare piece of good news. There is so much skulduggery going on in Washington these days that no one can keep up with it all. The national parks were saved, but another bill would give away to the states the federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. This legacy of 270 million acres, mostly in the West, includes 5.3 million acres of wilderness, vast expanses of grazing lands, deposits of metal ores, oil, uranium, and one-third of the nation’s coal. Why we should donate that estimated $500 billion worth of land to the states is hard to fathom. You have to watch this Congress every minute.
Congress is working to gut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency and to repeal the “right to know” law that requires industries to tell surrounding communities what toxic chemicals they are emitting. It is pushing through a toothless Endangered Species Act. It thinks it would be good if ranchers controlled all federal grazing lands and if roads could be permitted through wilderness areas. It is slashing the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
I have to pause here to mourn the Land and Water Conservation Fund, one of the best things the government used to do. There’s a small park in my town, and probably one in yours, that was bought with matching money from that fund. For 30 years the LWCF has helped buy little parks, big parks, city parks, town parks, and additions to our national parks. The money comes mainly from royalties paid by oil companies for drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. The idea was to tax private companies that extract public resources and to give the money back to the people in the form of public lands.
The oil tax brings in about $900 million a year, but Congress does not release all that money for conservation. Recent Congresses have appropriated LWCF spending ranging from $161 million to $335 million a year. The rest of the money has gone to other government expenses. (After all, with one year’s $900 million, we can buy half a B-2 bomber, of which the House has ordered an extra 20, though the Pentagon doesn’t want them.)
This week the Congress agreed on $140 million for land and water conservation — the lowest amount in decades. It will go to the National Park Service. The program for states and towns is being phased out. This cut is peanuts compared to other anti-environmental insults by this Congress, but it annoys me, because it takes away a little money that did a lot of good and that was put directly into the hands of the people — which is probably why the pork-dealers in Washington don’t like it.
So far I have listed just a few of the more straightforward Congressional assaults on the environment. I haven’t even come yet to the sneaky riders.
A rider is an attachment to a bill, a stowaway, something stuck on that may have little or nothing to do with the main bill. September is easy rider time. Thirteen appropriations bills have to be passed before October 1 to fund the government. If the president vetoes them, some of his agencies have to shut down. So it’s a great time for riders. The president almost has to sign them, and the press, focused on the budget, doesn’t notice them.
The most infamous rider in recent memory was the “logging without laws” attachment to a budget bill last spring. It ordered the Forest Service to release thousands of acres of national forest to logging companies, and it made that timber sale exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and all other environmental laws. Just to shut everyone up, it also forbade citizens from sueing the government over the sale. President Clinton actually signed that, losing every shred of environmental credibility he ever had.
At the moment the appropriations bills going through Congress carry more than 50 anti-environmental riders. They permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, exempt oil and gas companies from pollution prevention programs, and put a moratorium on the Endangered Species Act. They cancel the new Mojave National Reserve in California, mandate huge logging cuts in the Tongass National Forest, and give federal lands to mining companies basically for free. One rider prohibits any nonprofit organization that receives federal grants (environmental groups, universities, churches, all kinds of charitable organizations) from taking out political ads, bringing any suit against the government or taking part in public hearings. This silencing of free speech does not apply, of course, to corporations that receive federal contracts.
I called a friend in Washington this week to check on how the Land and Water Conservation funding was going. Just back from the Hill, she told me that House and Senate conferees were granting each other all the bad riders. Rather than the two houses bringing sense to each other, she said, we’re getting the worst of both worlds.
It’s not possible for busy citizens to keep track of this orgy of irresponsibility. This is a time to call Congress about so many things you can’t cover them all. I’m just asking them to stop all the direct and the indirect assaults on the environment (and I put in a special word for the Land and Water Conservation Fund). And I’m asking myself how to be sure we never again elect a Congress like this one.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995