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Great Lakes Article:

Quiet Environmental Rules Changes Decried

By Robert Schlesinger,
Boston Globe
1/5/2002

WASHINGTON - While the nation's attention has been focused on the war against terrorism, the Bush administration has continued its effort to redirect the environmental policies of the Clinton years.

Among the new Bush regulations are a number of decisions that could increase recreational and industrial activity on federally protected lands, allow more road building in national forests, and make it harder to block mining permits.

President Bush's supporters say the policies are in keeping with the conservative philosophy that was at the center of his 2000 campaign.

"Certainly there are changes," said Mark Wilson, a research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "We had an election; the administration changed."

Critics say that such moves are, at best, bad policy slipping by unnoticed. At worst, the critics say, the administration is using the current atmosphere to push policies that would otherwise not be accepted.

"There is a secret war against the environment, which has been waged over the last four months," said Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Medford and a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. "It has allowed the fulfillment of the wildest dreams of many anti-environmentalist industries that would have caused political storms in any other period."

The Bush administration's recent policies follow a pattern set when he took office. The final days of the Clinton administration saw a flurry of regulations, in many cases completing work on rules that had been under consideration for years. One of Bush's first acts froze the new rules while the administration reviewed them; later, some were overturned and some were allowed.

In one highly publicized case, the administration reviewed Clinton regulations sharply reducing the amount of arsenic allowable in drinking water. Ultimately, the Clinton rules stood.

Such reviews are not uncommon when an administration from an opposing party takes office, but Bush's moves were striking because of the large number of rules Clinton approved in his final days.

In the months following Sept. 11, several significant regulations have been enacted:

In October, the Interior Department revised land protections for areas designated as national monuments, permitting power-line construction and more access by recreation and industrial vehicles.

Later in October, the department revised another Clinton-era rule that would have given Interior Department managers the discretion to veto mining permits that had been approved by the Bureau of Land Management if they would cause "substantial irreparable harm" to environmental, cultural, or scientific resources. The administration noted that permit-seekers already had to go through a lengthy application process, while environmentalists saw a protection being stripped.

In November, the Army Corps of Engineers reversed a policy that prohibited a net loss of wetlands in its projects and required that new wetlands be protected to balance those lost in a project. Now, the agency can instead protect neighboring lands that serve as a buffer for wetlands.

Late in November, the Forest Service gave the go-ahead for a logging plan for 46,000 acres in Montana's Bitterroot Valley that burned last year.

Last month, the Interior Department pushed back a planned phase-out of snowmobiles in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone national parks that had been planned for next winter.

The decisions on snowmobiles and mining resulted from negotiated settlements of lawsuits filed by industry groups contesting the regulations, reflecting the administration's belief that it is better to have negotiated, amicable settlements than protracted, acrimonious lawsuits.

In addition, the administration made small changes to Forest Service rules that could affect the Clinton-imposed ban on road-building in federal forests. The first gave Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth discretion over whether roads could be built into forests.

Another rule change exempted national forests that had recently approved long-range management plans. Critics say that by excluding these forests, which did not include the roadless rules, 11 million acres of forest land would not get protection.

Last month, the Forest Service added rules eliminating the provision that requires that a compelling need be shown before roads can be built in national forests, and allowing the Forest Service to decide whether an environmental impact statement is necessary before road building.

Final regulations for many of the issues are still being formulated and were included on a list of "high priority regulatory review issues" in a report the White House Office of Management and Budget sent to Congress last month.

While most of these decisions had been developing for some time, many environmental activists suggest that the timing is not coincidental.

"There is no question in my mind that the lack of focus and lack of presence in Washington of Congress is probably accelerating some of these efforts," said Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Wilson, of the Heritage Foundation, scoffs at the notion.

"I don't think the administration is trying to use Sept. 11 as a cover for any of their regulatory actions," he said. "That's really just a fund-raising tactic of a variety of groups that are having a difficulty raising funds in the wake of Sept. 11."

Perhaps the biggest issue on the horizon is the "new source review," an Environmental Protection Agency review of Clinton-era clean air rules.

The Clean Air Act requires that any new sources of pollution have the best-available pollution-control equipment. The Clinton administration interpreted this rule to include current sources of pollution, such as power plants that are expanded or upgraded.

The energy industry opposes the rule, and the administration is expected to reverse the interpretation. The issue would ordinarily bring a huge fight, but many Democrats fear that the issue will not get much attention.

"Our national treasures are also victims of the war on terrorism," said Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia and ranking minority member of the House Resources Committee. "Issues that normally would have attracted attention remain under the public's radar."

But administration supporters say that the environmentalists' complaint is familiar.

"It always comes out, 'Oh, they're trying to do these bad things, and no one's paying attention,"' Wilson said. He said the administration is simply keeping with patterns it laid out from the start.

Some argue that the administration has been too timid.

"They're taking small steps to repair some of the damage done by the Clinton administration," said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Robert Schlesinger can be reached by email at schlesinger@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/5/2002.

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