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Nature: A Real Moral Value

Despite the rejection of some of Bush's worst environmental initiatives, the White House still hasn't learned that it's sailing against the public tide.
 
 
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As President Bush prepares his plans for a second term, he should remember that the name on the Oval Office door isn't the only thing that will stay the same. Another is America's broad, bipartisan consensus about conservation, health and environmental stewardship. The vast majority still believe in strong laws to keep our air and water clean, our families healthy and our beautiful landscapes preserved.

To protect nature is to follow a moral path, but ultimately we do it not for the sake of trees and animals, but because our environment is the infrastructure of our communities. If we want to provide our children the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment as those our parents gave us, we've got to start by protecting the air, water, wildlife, and natural treasures that connect us to our national character. Therein lie the values that define our community and make us proud to be Americans.

It's worth noting that President Bush largely avoided mentioning his environmental record during the campaign because it made him more vulnerable in the eyes of most voters. All the more reason then to be wary of his administration claiming a false mandate to continue pursuing its hostile environmental agenda.

Consider the words of EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt, who told reporters a few days after Bush's re-election that the administration's agenda has been "validated and empowered" by the voters.

A mandate on the environment? Nothing could be further from the truth.

When people were given the opportunity to vote on a purely environmental issue, as they did this year in ballot initiatives around the country, they almost always voted overwhelmingly in favor of protecting the environment.

By a more than two-to-one ratio, voters in Washington state approved a ballot initiative to prevent more waste from being dumped at the federal Hanford nuclear site, the nation's most contaminated federal facility. The decision will require cleanup of the 586-square-mile site before any additional waste is stored there. That is, if this common-sense measure survives a legal challenge by the Bush Justice Department.

In Montana, a conservative state that went for Bush, voters upheld a ban on using cyanide, a toxic chemical, in open pit mining. In Colorado, another "red" state, voters approved a requirement that utilities must generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources of energy, like solar and wind. And let's not forget the revolt of ranchers, anglers and hunters – particularly out West – who expressed outrage and bitter disappointment over the Bush administration's destructive public lands policies.

While the presidential contest was not a referendum on the environment, this election clearly demonstrated that protecting our health, environment and natural heritage was, is and always will be strongly supported by the American people.

Unfortunately, this message may be muddled back inside the Beltway. Despite the rejection in Congress of some of the Bush administration's worst initiatives, including Arctic Refuge drilling and industry-friendly air pollution and energy plans, the White House still hasn't learned that it's sailing against the public tide.

All indications are that Bush's second term will proceed as the first with respect to energy, the environment and efforts to auction off our natural landscapes at fire-sale prices. And they won't wait for Inauguration Day to continue rewarding corporate polluters with special exemptions, rule changes and loosened laws.

In the face of recent rhetoric about an alleged mandate, it's clear the challenge is greater than ever. But the important thing is that the fundamental politics of the environment did not change with this election. To the contrary, the forces that have worked to protect our communities remain firmly in place.

There is strong bipartisan support for a safer, cleaner approach – particularly in the U.S. Senate and among the nation's governors. And the fight won't just be about holding the line; in fact, we will see increasing efforts to move forward on pressing problems like mercury contamination, water pollution, ocean restoration and perhaps most importantly, global warming.

As the nation moves forward in tackling our environmental challenges – and we must – it's important to remember that all faiths teach us to protect our environment. In that sense, we can consider safeguarding the water we drink, the air we breathe, the wildlife and wild places we cherish, and the natural heritage owed to our children as the most important of the moral values that reportedly weighed heavily in this year's presidential race.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council , and author of "Crimes Against Nature."