Use Code BALT69 for a $69 Ticket to One Day University on July 9

Fiery talk on ecology continues to dog Gore


WASHINGTON - In his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance," Al Gore pledged to "make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization," raising hopes among even the fiercest environmentalists that, once elected vice president, he would radically reshape U.S. ecological policy.

Instead, the Clinton administration, with Gore cast as environmentalist in chief, has built a record in land, air and water protection that is long on accomplishments and expansive in scope, but riddled with compromises that have left many environmentalists disappointed and some enraged.

"Environmentalists who have worked hard to influence this administration over the last eight years have been very frustrated," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, which endorsed Gore for president this month after flirting with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

The vice president's fingerprints are all over the administration's environmental initiatives. The results of Gore's influence have been impressive, but they have also been the object of dispute:

The administration brokered what George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, called "probably the most sophisticated ecosystem management plan ever developed," to preserve 25 million acres of ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, halt the decline of the endangered spotted owl and allow some old-growth logging to continue. But tens of thousands of logging jobs have been lost, some ardent environmentalists still complain that too much timber harvesting continues, and the spotted owl population continues to slide.

The Environmental Protection Agency has drafted regulations to improve air quality and reduce emissions from cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles. But none of those regulations has gone into effect.

The White House helped broker sweeping agreements to restore the Florida Everglades, rescue the Sacramento Delta in California, preserve ancient redwoods in the Headwaters Forest of Northern California and buy wilderness in Alaska's Prince William Sound. But environmentalists say all of those plans were too generous to corporate interests.

Through executive order, Clinton has set aside more public lands than any president since Theodore Roosevelt. But some environmentalists argue that loopholes will allow some development in many of these areas and that much of the land was too remote to be threatened.

"We're being gloriously fooled," said David Brower, the 88-year-old gray eminence of the environmental movement who was president of the Sierra Club for 17 years.

Leading environmentalists who support Gore chalk up such concerns to unrealistic expectations. And, they say, it is not fair to hold the vice president accountable for the decisions of a president who has never made the environment a top priority.

But even Gore's environmental allies concede that Gore helped fuel those expectations with his own words in "Earth in the Balance."

"There are folks in the environmental community who believe we need a revolution," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which backs Gore. "And they hate Al Gore because Al Gore is not a revolutionary."

Though he was second fiddle, the vice president had a direct hand in the administration's environmental agenda. He helped stock the executive branch with trusted aides and leading environmentalists, fought for bigger environmental budgets, clashed with Clinton's economists and occasionally led public, high-stakes campaigns, such as the administration's embrace of the Kyoto protocol to combat global warming.

But more than anything, aides say, he made environmental issues a priority.

"Because we knew he would fight for stronger environmental protections, it enabled people throughout the administration to move forward," said Frampton, a former president of the Wilderness Society.

For some environmentalists, it was not enough. The circle of the disenchanted may be small, but it is vocal.

"Almost anything this administration has done, even more so than [former Presidents] Reagan and Bush, has been smoke and mirrors," said Tim Hermach, executive director of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore. "The word 'save' no longer means save; the word 'protect' no longer means protect."

To administration aides, not to mention foes of the White House in the business community, such language is almost mystifying.

"Environmentalists know that they have had more access to the highest level of decision-making than they had in the entire history of the environmental movement," said Kathleen McGinty, a Gore ally who preceded Frampton at the helm of the Council on Environmental Quality.

But the discontent can easily be traced back to the vice president's words. In "Earth in the Balance," Gore wrote that he had "become very impatient with [his] own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously." Even so, as vice president, he has proved himself a pragmatist.

In "Earth in the Balance," Gore called gasoline-burning engines "a mortal threat to the security of every nation" and embraced "new laws to mandate improvements in automobile fleet mileage."

But as vice president, such requirements have often been sacrificed for the sake of partnerships. Shortly after his election, Gore and the chief executives of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler began the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a high-priced research effort that promised to produce an affordable, mid-size family sedan that would get 80 miles a gallon by this year.

In April, the automakers rolled out the results of their $1 billion federal subsidy: three sleek concept cars that would operate on a hybrid diesel-electric engine. But production prototypes are not due out until 2004. Environmentalists say the diesel engines will not be clean enough and will do little to wean the country off foreign oil. And the price, as much as $15,000 more than that of conventional cars, will be prohibitive to most consumers, automakers concede.

Even environmental groups that strongly back Gore say he was snookered. Raising fuel efficiency standards in the 1990s, which the administration declined to press for, would have virtually precluded automakers from marketing gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, such as the Chevy Suburban and Ford Excursion, a far more efficient way to target the problem.

"The PNGV is a scam," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.

On other issues, Gore has found that compromise has produced a no-win situation. To forest activists, the Pacific Northwest timber deal has been a disaster. Hermach says timber-cutting is "going like gangbusters." Even Frampton conceded that spotted owl populations are still declining.

Yet, according to the industry, logging has been virtually shut down. Timber harvests in the old-growth forests are down 90 percent from their peak during the Bush administration.

"Every time Clinton made a concession to the environmentalists, they just shifted the goal posts," said Jim Geissinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers. "They will never be satisfied."

That trend can be seen in many of Gore's ecological efforts. The administration's $8 billion Everglades plan envisions restoring more than 2.4 million acres of South Florida marsh and coastal lands, removing 240 miles of levees and canals, and setting aside 35,600 acres of wetlands to filter polluted agricultural runoff.

Many environmentalists say the plan does not require powerful sugar interests to sacrifice nearly enough land and makes far too many concessions to developers in southern Florida.

This unforgiving attitude could spell political trouble for Gore, especially in environmental strongholds such as Washington state, Oregon and New Mexico, where environmental activists are urging their backers to vote for Nader.

Leaders of Friends of the Earth, which endorsed former Sen. Bill Bradley during the Democratic primaries, threw their support behind Gore Sept. 5 in a formal endorsement. The group considered endorsing Nader but feared that a strong showing at the polls by the Green Party candidate would guarantee the election of Republican George W. Bush.

The more uncompromising wing of the environmental movement has no such fear. Brower, who resigned from the Sierra Club board of directors this year after 67 years, said a Democratic administration is more dangerous than a Republican White House.

"If we had Bush, we would know he was bad," Brower said. "If we had Gore, we'd suspect we had good, but we'd be fooled."

Those in the administration who have been fighting for stronger environmental laws appear perplexed by this challenge. But they concede that Gore might have set himself up by adopting the strong language of the environmentalists he now must battle.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad