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A greener White House draws critics


WASHINGTON -- National Audubon Society lobbyist Brock Evans measures the thaw in relations between the federal government and the conservation community not by degrees but by faces -- the ones of environmental activists who got key jobs in the Clinton administration.

"You walk around the White House and say, 'Hi, Julie. Hi, Joe. Hi, Jim,' " remarks Mr. Evans. Having so many friends on high government perches, after 12 years of often hostile Republican rule, "is like daylight compared to night."

From Al Gore, the "green vice president," on down, Bill Clinton has put more environmentalists into government than any other president, according to the League of Conservation Voters. And he's put them in some untraditional places, such as the National Security Council, the White House budget office and the State Department.

Despite their unprecedented access to power, environmental groups are among Mr. Clinton's toughest critics, in much the same way that right-wingers often bashed President Ronald Reagan for allegedly failing to stay true to his conservative principles.

Many environmentalists have not forgiven Mr. Clinton's willingness to sacrifice major conservation proposals during last year's budget fight, a clear sign he that does not want their issues getting in the way of more important goals, such as reforming health care and cutting the deficit.

Still, after a slow start, his appointees are quietly pumping out proposals, rules and regulations that are likely to have a major impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

They cover everything from doubling the number of toxic chemicals that companies must disclose that they emit -- important new information to citizens about the substances in the air, water and soil -- to altering the flow of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in ways that favor whitewater paddlers over electric power customers in Arizona and California.

The administration has been the first to tackle some of the biggest and most difficult environmental problems around. One example: last year's proposal for sweeping changes in the century-old rules that cover grazing, mining and logging on the vast public lands in the West.

Though Mr. Clinton's performance cannot yet be measured on these and other pending issues, such as rewriting the nation's clean water and Superfund toxic cleanup laws, environmentalists appear to be getting their way on more modest, though still significant, matters.

In December, for instance, the administration rescinded a Bush administration proposal for the use of cleaner-burning gasoline in the nation's nine smoggiest cities, including Baltimore. The Bush version, aimed at winning votes from Midwest farmers in the 1992 election, would have required burning more ethanol, a corn byproduct.

Environmentalists argued that ethanol-based gasoline would actually have worsened air pollution in the nine cities.

Instead, the Clinton administration came up with a new plan, which was approved by assistant Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mary D. Nichols, formerly of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group. It calls for the sale of a less polluting -- but more expensive -- corn byproduct in gasoline during summer months. The plan is expected to raise pump prices in the affected cities by 3 to 5 cents a gallon.

Industry loses access

The greening of the federal government is giving fits to industry, which has lost the special access it enjoyed under the Republicans. Last year, the Clinton administration abolished a high-level council, formerly chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, which had allowed businesses to go straight to the White House to head off unwanted federal regulations.

"Now, instead of back channels for industry, they have back channels for environmental groups," says Lee M. Thomas, a former head of the EPA and currently senior vice president of Georgia-Pacific Co.

He protests that environmentalists helped the administration launch its proposed overhaul of the nation's clean water law, while industry representatives were shut out. Chemical companies are angry over a provision of the plan that could sharply reduce the use of chlorine compounds, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive defects.

In the Pacific Northwest, timber companies are claiming that the administration has given environmentalists unprecedented, and possibly illegal, veto power over tree cutting in national forests. Internal U.S. Forest Service memos appear to confirm that the Natural Resources Defense Council was able to review and then block some timber sales in Washington and Oregon.

Agriculture Department spokesmen deny that any outside groups are deciding which trees can be harvested on public lands, but Republican congressmen have asked the department's inspector general to look into the matter.

And across the Rocky Mountain states, ranchers, miners and lumberjacks are contending that the administration's proposed public lands reforms amount to a declaration of war on the West. Recently, cowboys on horseback and log-hauling trucks took to the streets of the Idaho state capital of Boise for a "Save Western Ways" protest parade that featured signs calling for Mr. Clinton's impeachment and the firing of Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt.

Environmentalists attack, too

At the same time that industry is portraying the Clinton team as a tool of the conservation movement, the administration is also under fire from environmentalists, including many of the same groups from which its top officials came.

"We're not going to just be buddies with the administration. Our greatest successes have come when we've taken a very hard line," says Frances Beinecke, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But the complaints also reflect genuine and deep disappointment over the administration's failure to match the expectations raised by Mr. Clinton's campaign promises and by the appointment of so many environmentalists.

"There has been a very steady pattern with this administration: one step forward, two steps back," says John Lawrence, staff director of the House Natural Resources Committee. "We're further behind, not in the sense that bad policies are being implemented, but because it's having a dispiriting effect on people in Congress and people in the environmental community who had such high expectations."

Not long ago, Mr. Babbitt was greeted in Denver by full-page newspaper ads condemning his "significant retreat" on grazing reform, which was blocked last year by Western senators. The ads were paid for by the Wilderness Society, whose former national president now serves under Mr. Babbitt as head of Interior's fish, wildlife and parks division.

Until he joined the Clinton Cabinet, Mr. Babbitt himself was president of the League of Conservation Voters, which has sharply criticized the administration's policies and recently gave Clinton a C+ grade for his first year in office.

Environmentalists in the Clinton administration are clearly uneasy with the criticism they are getting, since many privately are disappointed that they have not been able to accomplish more. But they also appear to be wearying of attacks from their old friends.

Babbitt fires back

In an interview, Mr. Babbitt spoke disparagingly of "the hired guns" of Washington-based environmental groups who have condemned his plan to give ranchers more of a say in range management. The interior secretary has been barnstorming the West to try to preserve what he can of his original plan to impose stiff new environmental rules on private ranchers who run sheep and cattle on millions of acres of public land.

While announcing his latest grazing compromise recently, Mr. Babbitt seemed to take a slap at national environmental groups, implying that they were outsiders who wanted to substitute their judgment for those living closer to the land. In today's "New West," he told a Colorado audience, "you no longer have to go to Washington or New York to find skillful environmental advocates. You can find them right next door."

Whether because of continued pressure from conservationists or because the 1994 election season has begun, the administration is moving gradually in the direction that environmentalists want.

The 1995 Clinton budget proposes significant new spending on the environment at a time when overall spending is being held down. And just last week, the administration announced a revised plan for preserving the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, one that came closer to meeting the demands of environmentalists.

Doubts about commitment

At the root of continued questions about the Clinton record on the environment are doubts about how personally committed the president is to pushing for more conservation at the expense of jobs, something that could undercut efforts to portray him as a "New Democrat" who is more friendly to business.

Mr. Clinton has refused to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to defend his environmental proposals, and some conservationists doubt he ever will. Mr. Gore also has been largely invisible on conservation issues, another sign to environmentalists that the White House has consigned their cause to second-class status.

"The president shouldn't be afraid to use his clout," says Mr. Evans of the Audubon Society, adding that Mr. Clinton still "has the chance to be the best environmental president in history."

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