New Agenda for Nature in Congress

Times Staff Writers

Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) walk the corridors of the U.S. Capitol in cowboy boots. Both also rail against environmental regulations they consider scientifically dubious and overly burdensome to business.

Now they have the power to do something about it.

Pombo, a rancher who has crusaded to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, is the new chairman of the House Resources Committee. Inhofe, who once called the Environmental Protection Agency a "Gestapo" bureaucracy, is the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) is the new chairman of the House subcommittee that appropriates money for the Interior Department. A registered forester, he pushed a bill through the House in the 1990s that temporarily removed protections from certain timber harvests.

This trio is among a group of pro-business conservatives with reputations for attacking environmental laws who now control committees charged with managing public lands and regulating pollution. In the new, Republican-controlled Congress, these chairmen will be central figures in advancing President Bush's agenda, which includes opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas exploration and allowing more logging in national forests.

They already are testing their clout.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who has taken the gavel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, hopes to win approval of Arctic oil drilling by using a parliamentary device to overcome a threatened Democratic filibuster.

Environmentalists say the leadership selections signal that Republicans have made a U-turn from the days when they chose lawmakers such as the late Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a champion of environmental protection who helped shepherd the 1990 revisions of the Clean Air Act through Congress.

"The Republican leadership has slammed the door on the party's tradition of conservation in order to open for business with corporate polluters who gave money to their campaigns," said Alys Campaigne, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Republicans reject the view that they are despoilers of the environment. "It's just that I come from a business background," Inhofe said. "I know that bureaucracies, if left alone, can become abusive."

Inhofe does not apologize for being the only senator to vote against the $7.8-billion federal commitment to restore the Florida Everglades, a pet project of the president and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Inhofe said the project's costs outweighed its benefits.

Now Inhofe is the chairman of the committee that will decide whether parts of the plan are implemented.

Inhofe and his staff outlined an agenda for this Congress that includes exempting the Pentagon from an array of environmental laws and introducing more cost-benefit analysis into regulatory decisions.

Will Inhofe be willing to take on President Bush on the Everglades plan and other topics? The senator has signaled he hopes to dilute one of the administration's environmental priorities.

The Bush administration has proposed for the first time regulating mercury emissions from power-plant smokestacks. Inhofe spokesman Mike Cantanzaro said the senator sees regulating mercury as impractical.

The League of Private Property Voters calls Inhofe a "champion" and regularly gives him perfect scores on its legislative report card.

In the House, Pombo has the same distinction. An ally of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Pombo jumped over more senior members to win the gavel of the House Resources Committee.

The owner of a cattle ranch in California's Central Valley, Pombo has been a longtime critic of the Endangered Species Act, contending that protections for certain species such as the kangaroo rat have ruined lives and livelihoods.

"We have to develop a way so it becomes a positive to have endangered species [on your property] instead of a negative," he said, suggesting that federal grants be offered to "encourage people to do things that attract wildlife and endangered species to their property."

He also has opposed a massive conservation-funding bill supported by many of his Republican colleagues. "Before we buy more land, we should do a better job of taking care of what we've got," he said.

He said the government should inventory the land it owns. "If there are lands that are not environmentally sensitive -- there's not a specific reason for them to be held by the public -- we should look at the possibility of selling those lands and using the money from that to purchase lands that are environmentally sensitive or lands that there's a reason for the public to own."

Pombo said he had not decided how to respond to the Pentagon's wish to be exempted from environmental laws.

"My only hesitation is if there is an underlying problem with the way the [law] is being implemented, then we should go in and fix" the law, Pombo said. "We shouldn't just exempt part of the federal government because the same things they're doing to the military, they're doing to private landowners."

Pombo said that environmental groups' criticism was "all about raising money."

But he said he acknowledged that his new job would require give and take with Democrats. "In order to get these bills to the president's desk, it has to be a compromise," he said in an interview.

Democrats who have clashed with Pombo hope to work with him.

"We obviously have sharp disagreements on a number of environmental policy issues, but we will work together where we can," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a former Resources Committee chairman. He said he prefers a chairman from California.

As for the other pro-business Republicans in strategic spots in the new Congress, Taylor in 1995 sponsored a controversial salvage timber amendment. The measure, which expired after 18 months, waived environmental laws to allow the removal of dead and dying trees from national forests. Many green trees as well as some old-growth trees in the Northwest were harvested as a result.

"He's the author of the single most controversial piece of forest legislation in a decade," said Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice, an environmental legal group.

Some analysts said the party and possibly the president could suffer if the chairmen fail to heed the lessons of the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. Then the new GOP majority, led by Newt Gingrich of Georgia, aggressively pushed to open the national forests to logging and to scale back clean water programs, only to run into a tide of public opposition.

"They overshot on environmental issues and later regretted it," said William Lowry, an environmental politics specialist at Washington University. "When the next election cycle comes around, the more out of step the Republican Party is with the majority on environmental issues, the greater the number of voters who will hold them accountable."

Others said the GOP victory in last year's congressional elections gave the Republican chairmen a mandate to change environmental policy.

"Ranchers, Western landowners, farmers, etc., are a core base of support for the Republican Party," said Republican strategist Joe Garecht, "and they're fed up with Clinton-era land regulations."

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