The Forest For the Trees


There are several ways to measure the effectiveness of a democracy. One is to look at how much the public is included in community decision-making. Another is to evaluate access to justice.

The most telling aspect of a government, however, is how it distributes the goods of the land. Does it safeguard the commonwealth – the public trust assets – on behalf of the public? Or does it allow the shared wealth of our communities to be stolen from the public by corporate power?

The environmental laws passed after Earth Day 1970 were designed to protect the commons – those shared resources that cannot be reduced to private property, including the air, flowing water, public lands, wandering animals, fisheries, wetlands and aquifers.

Since then, life has dramatically improved in America. Children have measurably less lead in their blood and therefore higher IQ levels. We breathe cleaner air in our cities and parks, swim in cleaner water in our lakes and rivers. These laws have protected the stratospheric ozone layer, reduced acid rain, saved threatened wildlife like the bald eagle, and preserved some of the last remaining wild places that make America so beautiful. In other words, they protect the parts of America that we all hold in common.

But George W. Bush's policy advisers somehow don't see the benefits we've received from our investments in America's environmental infrastructure. All they see is the cost of compliance to their campaign contributors – a group that is led by the nation's most egregious polluters. This myopic vision has led the White House to abandon its responsibility to protect the public trust.

James Watt, President Ronald Reagan's first Interior secretary, once promised, "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber." In April 2001, a retired James Watt told the Denver Post, "Everything Cheney's saying, everything the president's saying, they're saying exactly what we were saying 20 years ago, precisely. Twenty years later, it sounds like they've just dusted off the old work."

Bush administration Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton presides over a rich treasure trove: 450 million acres of America's public lands and 3 billion acres of coastal waterways.

She has also been a champion of corporate welfare, and of polluters, for three decades.

I've had many brushes with Norton's crew of ideologues. I have seen them subvert the law and corrupt our democracy and distort science. I have witnessed their willingness to break promises and deceive those they are appointed to serve.

In summer 2003, my cousin Maria Shriver's husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, approached me out on Cape Cod. He was determined, he said, to be "the best environmental governor in California history."

I agreed to help him, and worked with a group of sympathetic Republicans and Democrats in California to draft Arnold's environmental platform. Among the key provisions was support for the Sierra Nevada Framework – the product of a decade of grueling work by government, timber industry and environmental groups to manage the Sierra Nevada forests. But radicals at Interior opposed restrictions on the use of public lands.

Immediately after the election, conservative Republican Congressman David Dreier asked Schwarzenegger, at the behest of the White House, to abandon support for the Framework. Schwarzenegger refused, but noted that if changes to the Framework were warranted by new information or science, the Framework should be modified by the same thoughtful, inclusive stakeholder process that had resulted in the original plan.

This seemed to appease the White House. Bush senior political adviser Karl Rove promised that no federal action would be taken on Framework protections, especially logging, without extensive discussions with the state and all stakeholders.

And yet, in the late afternoon of Jan. 21, 2004, Gov. Schwarzenegger received word that the U.S. Forest Service would announce a new plan for the Sierra Nevada, tripling logging levels over the Framework agreement.

Schwarzenegger's office and California Environmental Protection Administration Commissioner Terry Tamminen tried frantically to reach administration officials but all calls went unanswered. To emphasize its contempt for the process, the Forest Service held a press conference in the Sacramento Hyatt, directly across the street from the governor's office, to announce its plan.

Republicans and Democrats alike in the Schwarzenegger administration were furious at the betrayal and astounded at the hardheaded arrogance that accompanied the broken promise.

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