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It's not easy being green for the GOP's Gilchrest


What's it like, trying to be a Republican and care about the environment?

Normally, asking your representative a question like that would be either joking or snotty. But Congress' first 100 days have not been normal times; unless you call normal a concerted, and so far, successful attack to dismantle a quarter century of environmental progress.

And for Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican who was conducting town meetings around the Eastern Shore when I interviewed him last week, they have been especially trying.

Gilchrest, whose district rambles from the Eastern Shore through South Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, is an all-too-rare bird among today's politicians. He is a staunch, though not slavish, backer of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." His votes consistently get excellent ratings from business, and just as consistently get good to excellent ratings from environmental scorekeepers like the League of Conservation Voters.

Environmental concern is not a hot button in most of his district, but for Gilchrest, the caring is personal. For him, a canoe trip on Turner Creek near his Kent County home is a transcendent experience. In 1986 he moved his family to an Idaho wilderness region to take an unpaid job with the U.S. Forest Service and live in a cabin with no electricity.

While many conservative members of Congress, including Democrats, attack the Environmental Protection Agency as the very devil, Gilchrest decries the agency for recently firing Peter Kostmayer, whose style as chief of the region including the Chesapeake Bay was too aggressive for the Clinton administration.

To my flip question about the difficulty of being Republican and green, Gilchrest has a flip reply: It would be worse, he supposes, to be Democratic and green: "Then, I'd have no influence at all."

But yes, he concedes, even though he knew last winter the environment would be in for rough sledding from the newly elected 104th Congress, he is chastened at what has transpired in the first 100 days.

"Things have been moved back to ground zero. It is as if the environmental movement has to start all over again," he says.

How bad is the damage?

Consider not only Gilchrest's gloomy assessment, but others, from sources hardly considered extremist.

On the sweeping regulatory reform passed as part of the House's Contract: "the most sweeping anti-health, anti-safety and anti-environmental measure ever proposed."

That is from Fred Krupp, whose Environmental Defense Fund has often troubled other national environmental groups by joining with industries to devise more user-friendly regulation.

And this from Gregg Easterbrook, author of a relentlessly upbeat new book that criticizes environmentalists for doomsaying when the environment is really flourishing: "The House initiatives have become an indiscriminate attack on all conservation rules . . . the worst environmental threat now is from the 104th Congress."

Specifically, here is a taste of what will happen under legislation passed by the House, or likely to pass in the next 100 days:

* At least half, and maybe up to 80 percent, of the nation's wetlands removed from federal protection.

* Repeal of most legal authority over pollution running off farms and developed areas; voluntary compliance plans allowed up to 15 years to take effect.

* Environmental protection on private property effectively gridlocked by new rules allowing an owner to harm the environment unless compensated for stopping.

* Endangered Species Act proposed for virtual dismantling.

* New environmental regulations subject to near-impossible standards of risk analysis and scientific certainty -- a cynical ploy to force gridlock.

The real tragedy, as Easterbrook points out, is that most of those protections either were working well or, with sensible revisions, could have worked well; but instead they are being dismantled.

How is this happening?

Take the current gutting of the Clean Water Act, one of the major reasons so many of this nation's streams and rivers have come back to life since it was first passed 23 years ago. (The House-revised bill is awaiting a floor vote.)

"Things moved much too fast for members to know what they were voting on," Gilchrest says. "We had seven hearings, at which no more than six to 10 members of the [52-member public works] committee, which I'm on, were usually present," he recalls.

The bill that developed, which he opposed, was about 159 pages. "Then, just before we vote, we get a bill with about 259 pages. Where did that other hundred pages come from? A small, inner circle; but it was voted through," he says.

Gilchrest, a former history teacher, went into the first 100 days hopeful that he could educate a significant block of his Republican colleagues "about what makes this a living planet . . . [not] just a place for us to live." He says he will try again in the second 100 days that begin next week. "But I have never seen so many people afraid of information in my life [or] so extravagantly funded by interest groups that stand to make a lot dTC of money from misinformation," Gilchrest says.

At one point he threatened to resign from a task force working on the Endangered Species Act, when he was told he could not invite respected scientists to his hearings.

The collegiality he once found in the House "is about gone now; it is a mean, bare-knuckled atmosphere, with a lot of intimidation to go along," Gilchrest says.

To get a taste of the blind ideology that is driving things in the House, consider the League of Conservation Voters' just-released scores of members on 10 key environmental votes during the first 100 days.

The best score possible is 100, the worst zero. The average score of the 73 new Republicans elected in November to the House? Three.

That includes a score of zero by freshman Rep. Robert Ehrlich, from Baltimore County, who compounds the effrontery by continuing to claim he cares about the Chesapeake Bay. "I think there has been a tendency to over-regulate; these are complex issues," Ehrlich says. He says that a longer record of votes in the next couple years will show he is not anti-environment.

Maryland's other Republican scores are: Gilchrest, 73; Connie Morella, 82; Roscoe Bartlett, 9.

Adding to the shame of what is happening in Washington now is that industry groups who have been cashing in -- often legitimately -- on their greener image in recent years are hip-deep with the Republicans in the prospect of blowing away environmental restraints. Gilchrest says he often thinks of "President Kennedy saying, ask what you can do for your country -- that sense of shared vision seems lost now . . . it's all so self-interested."

I don't envy Wayne Gilchrest his second 100 days, but I'm glad he's in there pitching. He and the small minority of Republicans opposing the massacre deserve our support.

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