A Step Shy of Book-Burning
It never got down to actual book-burning, but the Republican choke-hold on government would clearly have taken us there. In August, under the guise of fiscal responsibility, the Bush Environmental Protection Agency began closing most of its research libraries, both to the public and to its own staff.
The EPA's professional staff objected strongly, insisting that closing the libraries would hamstring them in their jobs. In a letter to Congress protesting the closures, public employees said, "We believe that this budget cut is just one of many Bush administration initiatives to reduce the effectiveness of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and to continue to demoralize its employees."
The EPA's precipitous move to close the libraries was based on a $2 million cut in Bush's proposed $8 billion EPA budget for 2007. EPA bureaucrats did not wait to see if Congress might restore the funds or shift budget priorities in order to save the libraries; it acted immediately to box up documents for deep storage, and shut the doors.
While the official EPA line is that all of the documents will be eventually be digitized and made available online, this will cost money that the agency does not have, so for practical purposes, all of the thousands of reports and maps that now exist only on paper or microfiche will be lost to the public and to agency scientists. They might as well just burn them.
Closing the EPA libraries is the perfect symbol to characterize the methods of the Bush administration. Since 2000, the Republicans have cemented their reputation as ushers of a new dark age. They have sought to shroud the light of science by closing libraries and by suppressing scientific reports. They have gagged their own scientists and persecuted whistleblowers. They have cloaked government in secrecy, a prime example being Dick Cheney's secret meetings with oil companies to draft an industry-friendly national energy policy. But that era is now winding down.
Just before the election, Barbara Boxer and other senators sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee calling for restored access to the libraries. There is every reason to hope that the Democrats will follow through with their newly won power and get those libraries reopened. But this will be just the beginning of a Herculean task to clean the muck out of the stables and restore an environmental regulatory function to government.
For those who have labored in the environmental trenches, who know the true size of the mountain of excrement that blocks our path to good environmental policy, even the task of listing the environmental tasks to be done feels overwhelming.
In the early days of the Bush reign, the Natural Resources Defense Council began compiling all of the Bush administration rollbacks and assaults on environmental quality. By the November 2004 elections, it had listed more than 300 Bush "crimes against nature." NRDC stopped counting a year later, but you can still see the list at their web site.
So it's hard to say what the Democrats' environmental priorities should be. Climate change, energy, clean air and water, forest and wildlands protection, toxics, endangered species -- they are all important, urgent and critical. The common thread through all of these environmental issues is the need to understand and follow the science. That requires two things: good information and good people. Without the presidency, the Democrats will be limited in their ability to enact new policies, but they should do their utmost to block bad appointees, encourage and protect whistleblowers, and pump some money back into starved and understaffed agencies like the EPA and the Forest Service.
Some recent history shows what can be accomplished under less than optimum conditions. I began my career as a forest advocate in the latter half of the Reagan/Bush I years. That government was characterized by the anti-environmental "we might as well use it all up because Jesus is coming" philosophy of Secretary of the Interior James Watt.
Our hopes were raised when Clinton took office, but passing health care reform, not forest protection legislation was his priority. We got a "forest conference" instead and instructions to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to protect spotted owls. A court ruling was the only backstop. Then, after the Gingrich revolution, there was no chance to pass proactive wilderness or forest protection legislation.
But forest advocates continued to lobby the Clinton administration, and after eight years, we began to sense a sea-change in the managing agencies. They became much friendlier to science. Not only did Clinton manage to appoint Mike Dombeck, a wildlife biologist, as Forest Service Chief, but the number and status of the "-ologists," the biologists, hydrologists, geologists, and other scientists had risen. We found that even in the absence of strong conservation directives, with good people in place and respect for the science, forest management was greatly improved.
Then that dark day fell in November 2000. By Thanksgiving, as we swallowed hanging chads with our turkey, we knew that our carefully built edifice of protection for forests would be attacked. We hoped to limit the damage, but Bush and company have had a long and destructive run.
Still, it could have been worse. If anything, I think the environmental movement is stronger now than it was when Bush took office. As the environment continues to degrade, people are no longer taking environmental protection for granted. As the public sees what a dark ages approach to the environment looks like, there is a greater appreciation for science.
In the end, it comes down to people. People have voted out the Republicans and voted in the light of reason. Without access to information, reason cannot operate. Let there be libraries!