Commonsense Environmentalism

Monday, October 30, 2000

Commonsense environmentalists would love to hear a president pledge that—when his or her term as president is over—land, wildlife, water, and air will be better cared for. But doing so requires paying attention to the same commonsense principles that apply to other programs, namely, positive incentives for the private sector and fiscal pragmatism for government.

Contrast this vision with the current administration. It has used executive orders to turn the federal estate from a land of many uses to a land of no uses, setting aside national monuments against the wishes of states and their representatives and locking up 30 million to 40 million acres in additional wilderness. Timber harvests have fallen from 12 billion board feet to 3 billion board feet. Clinton has supported private land regulation under the Endangered Species Act, despite evidence that it doesn’t work. He favors breaching dams on the Snake River system, despite scientists who say it won’t help the fate of salmon. Under Clinton, the costs of EPA regulations have grown to 2.4 percent of GDP, or $3,000 a year for a family of four.

A commonsense conservationist approach should

  • Support funding for land and water conservation, not to buy more land but to better manage what we have. We don’t need more national parks and forests, we need better ones.

  • Support legislation allowing qualified environmental groups to issue tax-exempt bonds and use the proceeds to purchase and manage forestlands on a sustainable basis.

  • Support continuing a program passed by the current Congress that allows federal land agencies to charge higher fees and keep the proceeds for reinvestment where they are collected.

  • Make funds available to environmental groups on a competitive basis to purchase or lease private or public lands to save endangered species habitat. Environmental Defense is attempting to contract with Utah ranchers to provide habitat for prairie dogs, and the Oregon Water Trust is leasing water to enhance water flows for salmon.

  • Follow the lead of states that clean up Superfund sites faster and cheaper and encourage entrepreneurial approaches to the brown-fields problem.

  • Set realistic environmental standards and reward firms that go beyond compliance. Rather than focusing on detailed technological regulations, private firms should be free to achieve the standards the best way they know how. A local program in the Tar-Pamlico Sound of North Carolina is cleaning up water at one-tenth the estimated cost under EPA mandates.

To be conservative is to be a conservationist. Environmental progress will require harnessing the power of the private sector. Current regulations make the environment a liability rather than an asset. By rewarding private stewardship we can counter gloom-and-doom environmentalism with optimistic environmentalism.