By Donella Meadows
–August 22, 1996–
Congress is in recess till after Labor Day so our representatives can attend conventions and take a break from the muggy Washington summer. It’s a good time to collar them at home and tell them what we think of their assault on our natural resources. After negative public reaction last year, the politicians are talking nice and green. But their actions are as dirty and brown as ever.
Last year’s battles were mostly about riders — small poisonous attachments to big necessary bills. Voters are not supposed to notice them, and the president is supposed to feel obligated to sign them. Bill Clinton refused to do so, which is why the government shut down. Being a compromiser, however, Clinton let a nasty rider or two slip through every time there was a confrontation. One of them, the timber salvage rider, is at this moment allowing an orgy of unsustainable and irresponsible clear-cutting in our national forests.
Hoping that they’ll get through a few more like that, the grinches in Congress are busily loading on riders again.
The Interior Appropriations Bill is about to go to the Senate bearing a rider that will stop a sustainable management plan for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The Tongass is the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest, home to bears, wolves, moose, bald eagles, and the Ketchikan Pulp Company, a subsidiary of Louisiana-Pacific.
The Alaskan delegation hangs Tongass riders on almost everything. They always protect a sweetheart contract that grants exclusive rights to Ketchikan to clearcut the Tongass. Local folks who can see the damage keep trying to slow the logging to sustainable rates and protect the forest’s streams, wildlife, and recreational value, as required by the National Forest Management Act. The riders work to increase the cut, as if there were no use for those publicly owned trees other than to turn them into private profit as fast as possible.
Another rider currently on the Interior bill would forbid the Interior Secretary from regulating rights of way on public lands (the point is to prevent the establishment of roadless areas). Yet another would keep the National Park Service from developing guidelines to be sure biological organisms on public land (such as bacteria that live in Yellowstone’s hot springs) cannot be used or patented by private companies without public control and appropriate payment.
You can see the mentality behind these riders. They aim to let special interests exploit public resources at low or no price, and to do it quickly, while the Gingrich Congress lasts.
The same mentality has produced the “Gingrich Grazing Bill.” Newt blocked earlier versions of this, which were blatant giveaways, but he has labeled this one a “leadership priority.” Here’s what it would do:
– Continue to subsidize the livestock industry with grazing fees so low that they cost us taxpayers millions of dollars annually in lost revenues.
– Undercut existing regulations designed to protect the soils and waters and wildlife on grazing lands.
– Create rancher-dominated councils to advise government agencies on land management decisions.
– Forbid anyone from holding a grazing permit and not using it for grazing. (This has been one way environmentalists and conservation-conscious ranchers could protect federal land from overgrazing.)
– Allow ranchers who hold permits to bar citizen access to public lands.
– Allow citizen comment on these matters, but forbid all legal avenues for public appeal.
If you say anything to your congressperson during this break, tell him or her what you think of this grazing bill. Ask why, if it’s so important to balance the budget, we sell grazing rights so far below market price.
Then there is the amazing National Parks Commercialization Act, currently moving through the Senate. It would allow corporate sponsorship of national parks, like corporate sponsorship of the Olympics. (Coca-Cola proudly brings you Yosemite National Park!) So far that’s a stand-alone bill, but it will probably end up as a rider on the Omnibus Parks Bill, which provides for better management of our parks and funds some popular new ones, such as the Presidio in San Francisco.
Given the riders on it at the moment, if President Clinton wants to sign the parks bill, he will also have to: subsidize builders of condominiums on the coast of Florida; allow a developer to grab Forest Service land in Utah (using the coming Olympics as an excuse); trade unlogged public land in Arkansas to the Weyerhaeuser Corporation in exchange for logged land; give a national wildlife refuge to the state of Oklahoma; allow streambed mining of a Wild and Scenic River in Alaska — and more. The parks bill is decorated like a Christmas tree, each rider a shining present to someone who has power over someone in Congress.
When we contact our elected leaders, here’s a demonstration of the sort of language we might use. It comes from a recent op-ed in the New York Times written by Rick Bass, a former timber worker. He lives in the Yaak valley of Montana, where he sees the timber salvage rider at work every day. That rider, he says, “shames our leaders and it shames those of us who allow them to stay in their bought-and-leveraged positions of power and compromise. It shames the gift of the soil and the forests that our ancestors bequeathed to us. If we allow Congress to perpetuate rather than repeal the clear-cut rider, our children will deservedly call us corporate pawns and simpletons for giving away the wilderness that should have been passed on to them.”
The message to Congress and to the president is simple. Cut out the riders. Stop giving away our trees and grasslands and minerals and wildlife and the beauty of our shared, treasured lands.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996