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Wilson Attempting to Build Image as Environmentalist

Times Political Writer

Traveling through the splendors of the Central California coastline, far from city smog and congestion, Pete Wilson confronted a task that is becoming familiar but by no means easier in his political career. He is out to sell himself to voters as a Teddy Roosevelt environmentalist in a party saddled with memories of James Watt.

Wilson, the Republican candidate for governor and a two-term U.S. senator, traveled to Monterey on Wednesday and said he would support the enlargement of designated wilderness and wild river areas in the Los Padres National Forest.

Then Wilson headed south to Goleta, where he called on the Coast Guard to enact greater safeguards on shipping in the Santa Barbara Channel and surrounding waters.

Neither idea is particularly bold or surprising. Decidedly understated is more like it. But piece by piece, community to community, Wilson is trying to make a case that he is one Republican who believes that “Californians should be able to make a living in a state worth living in.”

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His campaign literature generously compares Wilson to Roosevelt, a Republican and father of the national park system. At the same time, Wilson’s biographies point out how he sometimes fought the policies of Watt, the Reagan Administration interior secretary whom environmentalists loved to hate.

The 1990 race for governor may put Wilson’s slogans and positioning to test as never before, a fact that Wilson acknowledges.

For one thing, evidence is mounting that residents feel that the luster is off the Golden State. And that means that environmental preservation has taken its place with abortion, crime and corruption among the Big Four issues shaping the early going in an election still 15 months away.

“There’s more at stake and there is going to be attention paid that wasn’t paid before,” Wilson said.

A public opinion sampling by independent California pollster Mervin D. Field found a sudden and sharp drop this year in the number of residents who believe that the state is “one of the best places to live.”

Wilson is responding by highlighting his record as a leader in the fight to protect the coastline against the danger of oil drilling and spills. And he continues to champion the protection of select wildlands and rivers.

These were the themes Wilson took to a wooded bluff in Monterey and to the municipal pier in Goleta.

At the gates of the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, Wilson endorsed and said he would seek Senate approval of a Bush Administration wilderness expansion. This would add four new wilderness areas, or about 253,000 acres total, and increase protection for 74 miles of Central California rivers by designating them part of the national Wild and Scenic River system.

Among the proposed wilderness areas would be the 197,000-acre Sespe Wilderness in the semiarid mountains north of Ojai. This area includes habitat for the endangered California condor. Among the rivers proposed for added protection are portions of the Big Sur River and Sespe Creek.

In the vicinity of the Channel Islands west of Santa Barbara, Wilson said oil tankers should be rerouted outside the offshore islands to avert the chances of a coastal spill. And for other cargo ships, Wilson said the north-south traffic should be separated by a five-mile-wide “fairway,” not the two miles proposed by the Coast Guard.

But Democrats seem more determined than ever in this campaign to challenge Wilson over the quality of life in California.

One leading Democratic candidate for governor, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, last week proposed the outlines of a sweeping initiative that he said would not only contain coastline protections but bold new controls on pesticides and other dangerous chemicals.

Pesticides are the province of California’s huge agriculture industry, a strong backer of Wilson. But they also are a hot-button concern for urban voters, who worry about the safety of food, from apples to grapes.

Van de Kamp showed an early willingness to talk unusually tough about pesticides as an environmental issue.

“Why is it,” he demanded last week, “that the needs of corporate agribusiness for cancer-causing pesticides weigh more heavily in the balance than the lives of children in Mcfarland or farm workers in Fresno?”

In an interview, Wilson defended himself. “He’s going to have to contend with my record (on pesticides),” the senator said.

Wilson cited two actions he took in Congress--one to impose U.S. Food and Drug Administration health standards on imported agricultural products and the other to prevent the federal government from weakening state-adopted pesticide controls.

But Wilson readily conceded the dangers involved in being put on the defensive with such a touchy issue. In his 1988 reelection to the U.S. Senate, he said, “the only time that (Democratic opponent Leo T.) McCarthy did any damage was when he ran a spot saying I was weak on toxics.”

Wilson said he felt that he refuted the charge at the time. But he granted that voters in California hold strong stereotypes on some matters of policy. “It’s true that Republicans are considered tougher on crime . . . but we often don’t get the credit we deserve on the environment.”


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