Natural resources policy in the Clinton administration: a mid-course evaluation from inside.

AuthorLeshy, John D.
PositionSymposium on Clinton's New Land Policies

I will try not to give a campaign speech, but I must warn you in advance that I may not be successful in cleansing my remarks of all partisanship. I will try to step back a little from the day-to-day stuff of government and suggest some of the themes being sounded by our activities. I will concentrate on the Department of Interior (DOI) because that is where I work and what I know best.

First, to set the stage, it is worth recalling the aphorism that politics is the art of the possible. While there is wisdom in John F. Kennedy's dictum that the art of politics is enlarging what is possible, any administration is at least somewhat constrained by the hand it is dealt. The incoming Clinton Administration's cards looked something like this:

* Although the President had garnered only forty-three percent of the popular

vote, expectations were high, particularly among environmentalists. After

twelve years of what many thought was executive branch inaction on a number

of key issues, the general assumption among the organized interest groups was

that the activist, pro-regulation stance that had marked the early days of the

modern environmental movement would be restored.

* Public opinion was still strongly pro-environment, but polls generally


the issue had declined substantially in importance on the national scale of


The dominant attitude seemed to be that environmental protection was

being adequately handled. At the same time, the public was angry at, and


hostile to, politicians, government, and government regulation.

* A number of issues were on our agenda whether we liked it or not: gridlock

in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest; crisis in the Everglades;

mining law reform, which had been actively debated in Congress for several

years; systemic funding and infrastructure problems in the National Parks; and

a host of issues and controversies surrounding the Endangered Species Act


In that milieu, we sought to take natural resource policy in the following six directions. First, promoting and paying attention to science. There was a fairly widespread sense that science had been politicized or ignored in a number of these resource controversies. In one of his first acts, DOI Secretary Bruce Babbitt created the National Biological Service (NBS)(2) both to strengthen the biological infrastructure and to separate research scientists from regulators. This was not a new bureaucracy, but rather a consolidation of the biological research being conducted in several DOI bureaus. Ironically, although it performed nonregulatory and nonpartisan work and it is a biological counterpart to the long-respected U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the NBS has been characterized by some of our opponents as nothing less than a bunch of environmental Brown Shirts.(3) The House Republicans' "Contract with America"(4) proposed its outright abolition, although to show they were not biased against biology, the Contract also proposed to abolish the USGS.(5) Secretary Babbitt has decried the Contract proposals as akin to bookburning or, because these agencies often provide early warning of fundamental problems or changes in the natural world, ripping down smoke alarms.(6)

Paying more attention to good science usually means paying less attention to jurisdictional boundaries in natural resource management. While some cooperative interagency efforts have been made in the past, the scope and pace of these efforts have expanded dramatically in the last couple of years. Virtually every major issue that engages us, and every major initiative we are pursuing, involves a number of different federal agencies acting cooperatively. Conversely, the primary reason the courts took control of old growth forest management was because the federal agencies were steadfastly working at cross-purposes with each other.

The Pacific Northwest's old growth and salmon controversies have required unprecedented levels of cooperation among the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Ultimately, five cabinet departments - Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Justice, and Labor - have played important roles in implementing the President's forest plan.(7) A few hundred miles south, many of these same agencies, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, have worked side by side to fashion a path-breaking agreement, after twenty years of gridlock, to protect water quality and endangered fish in the California Bay-Delta region.(8)

Paying attention to science sometimes requires economic pain. The timber harvest from federal lands in the Pacific Northwest has gone down eighty percent or more. For many residents, the reordering of local economies is not really soothed by the knowledge that the harvest levels of the 1980s were, by virtually all accounts, unsustainably high.

Another consequence of focusing on good science, and perhaps less appreciated, is that it can highlight the limitations of current scientific knowledge. Making sound resource policy decisions is more difficult when there are strong but opposing views among scientists on particular issues. Consider, for example, the continuing, intense debate among scientists over whether spills, reservoir drawdowns, or barging is the most effective way to address declining salmon populations in. the Columbia basin.(9)

A second theme has been a healthy respect for federalism. This cannot be a surprise from an administration headed by a former governor and a state attorney general, whose DOI Secretary has a similar background. But even apart from the shared belief that not all public...

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