Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer East Riders

By Debbie Gilbert

AUGUST 10, 1998:  Only one road crosses Denali National Park, a 6-million-acre wilderness in the heart of Alaska’s Interior. Unpaved for most of its 90-mile length (it terminates at Wonder Lake, in the shadow of Mt. McKinley), the road is off-limits to private vehicles. Visitors leave their cars near the park entrance and travel through the backcountry on free shuttle buses, getting on and off as they wish. Because there is little traffic, Denali’s wildlife roam freely, unaffected by humans. Grizzlies, moose, and caribou can often be seen from the road.

Denali’s shuttle system works so well that other national parks have aspired to copy it, returning the land to a more natural condition and eliminating traffic jams.

But Alaska’s legislators want to build a second road through Denali, ostensibly to access old mining claims. This road would be linked to the existing one to form a loop, which would then be opened up to automobiles. For years, pro-development advocates have tried to push this project through Congress, and in June, they finally succeeded. The $1.5 million allocation was attached to a massive $203 billion highway bill that was ridiculed in the media for being loaded with pork. But this little project, which could forever change the character of Denali, went unnoticed.

How did this happen? It helped that the chairman of the House Resources Committee (the word “natural” no longer precedes “Resources,” which tells you something right there) is Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), and that the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska). And, oh yeah – the chairman of the all-important Senate Appropriations Committee is Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

What matters, though, is not what these lawmakers did but how they did it. Determined not to make the same error as the 104th Congress, the current class has figured out how to make bad environmental decisions and still score high on public-opinion polls.

You may remember the 104th Congress. Emboldened by the Contract With America, legislators attempted to do away with some of the country’s major environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. They assumed voters wouldn’t care. President Clinton vetoed those appropriations bills, leading to a shutdown of the federal government in December 1995. To the astonishment of congressional Republicans, they, not the president, took the heat for this, propelling Clinton toward reelection.

This time around, they’ve learned the value of subtlety – or subterfuge. “In the 104th Congress, there were a lot of overt, free-standing bills against the environment, but they took a lot of flak for that,” says Debbie Cease, legislative director for the Sierra Club. “Now, they’re doing what’s known as ‘flying under the radar.’ Attacks [on the environment] were originally through the front door, then the back door, and now it’s through the basement.”

The trick is to put anti-environmental legislation where the public won’t notice it, in the form of “riders.” There are 13 gigantic appropriations bills that must be signed by the president every year in order for the government to continue operating. If a congressman’s request for, say, more logging in one of his state’s national forests gets attached to one of these legislative monsters, it goes along for the ride. The president might object, but he usually won’t veto an entire package based on a few riders. Thus, one by one, these amendments chip away at environmental protection, mostly out of public view. The Denali road project is the tip of the iceberg.

“There are currently a dozen or more Alaska riders on appropriations bills now going through Congress,” says Bill Reffalt, the Wilderness Society’s program director for Alaska and national parks.

On July 23rd, the House of Representatives passed an Interior Department appropriations bill that would cut funding for wilderness land acquisition and endangered species protection, while continuing the Forest Service’s money-losing logging operations.

“It’s 1995 all over again,” complained Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when he heard the news. “Rather than attempting to repeal or gut these laws head-on, they’re doing it by starving the programs.”

A few days later, the House passed a VA/HUD appropriations bill that happens to also be the funding vehicle for the Environmental Protection Agency. Riders on this bill would prevent EPA from, among other things, combating air pollution and haze in our national parks. And there’s a controversial provision that forbids EPA from developing any global-warming programs that would comply with last year’s climate-change treaty. The hard-fought agreement reached in Kyoto is meaningless if Congress refuses to fund it.

Not all legislators want to trash the environment, of course, but some may feel they have little choice. Rep. Harold Ford of Memphis, for example, usually takes a pro-environment stance, and he had originally planned to vote against the VA/HUD bill. But according to his spokesman, Ford changed his mind at the last minute because the bill included funding for the homeless and for low-income housing that the congressman felt he couldn’t say no to.

Even if a legislator objects to a rider, he or she may not get an opportunity to voice that opinion. Ordinarily, a bill is first considered in its committee of origin before being debated and voted on by all members of the House. A different version of the bill goes through the same process in the Senate. Finally, there is a joint House-Senate conference to hammer out a compromise bill that will be sent to the president.

Trouble is, many anti-environment riders are now tacked on at the last minute, in the joint conference, where they are never voted on in committee and never debated on the floor. To reverse this trend, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) introduced the “Defense of the Environment Act.” This bill, co-sponsored by Representatives Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri) and George Miller (D-California), doesn’t call for new regulations or change existing laws. It merely says that congressional committees must identify any piece of legislation that may harm the environment, and that any member of Congress may ask for 40 minutes of debate and a vote on each of these riders. This would insure an opportunity for discussion before an amendment is signed into law.

Waxman first put forth this bill in October 1997, and it failed to make any headway in Congress. In May, the three co-sponsors wrote a letter to their colleagues asking for reconsideration, pointing out that “over the last three years, riders were used to increase clearcut logging in our national forests, … stall the Superfund program, backslide on energy-efficiency standards,” and much more. The legislation failed again this summer, but Waxman intends to keep reintroducing it until it passes.

As for the two mammoth spending bills recently approved by the House, the Sierra Club’s Cease believes that they will make it through the joint conference with anti-environmental provisions intact, only to be vetoed by the president.

And that road in Alaska? There may yet be reason to hope, according to Reffalt of the Wilderness Society: “Most people believe the law isn’t sufficient to require the building of the road, even though the money has been allocated. And the $1.5 million will probably only pay for the environmental impact statement, not construction.”

Ultimately, it’s possible that the fate of Denali may have to be decided in the courts rather than in the halls of Congress.

On the state level, feathers are still ruffled over a bit of environmental game-playing that occurred in July. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation had known since November about an EPA report that was highly critical of TDEC’s air-pollution-control division, but state legislators didn’t find out about it until after they agreed, in June, to reduce the fees charged to major polluters. In fact, according to Sen. Jim Kyle, the state never showed lawmakers the report; they obtained it from the Tennessee Environmental Council instead.

TDEC commissioner Milton Hamilton argued that since his department had already corrected “98 percent” of the deficiencies noted by the EPA, the report was moot. And TDEC spokesperson Lola Potter said that the EPA document was not intended for the public, so TDEC was under no obligation to share it.

“I find that reprehensible,” says Alan Jones, director of the Tennessee Environmental Council. “I think it is a public document – maybe not legally, but ethically. Here is a critical audit directly relevant to state rule-making, and for TDEC to say that the public has no right to know about it, I think is offensive.”

Kyle says that when the state senate’s Government Operations Committee meets again in September, he wants to see evidence that TDEC has cleaned up its act. “I want to give the department the benefit of the doubt, but the burden of proof is on them to show they’re doing a good job. I expect a written report with details.”

Attorney Tracy Carter, who took over last week as TDEC’s new director of air-pollution control, says TDEC has dropped the probationary program that EPA deemed too lenient, and has streamlined the enforcement process. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say we’ve gotten rid of our backlog,” she admits, “but the EPA is satisfied with our plans to speed up enforcement.”

As for criticisms from Tennessee politicians that TDEC is understaffed and underfunded, Carter says her division’s 154 employees and $9.4 million budget both represent increases over the previous year.

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