Profiles of the Bush Administration Chiefs of Environmental Agencies

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 L-R: Secretary of the Interior Manuel L. Lujan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly, and Secretary of State James Baker.

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the environmental community when the Reagan administration gave way to the Bush administration on January 20. Eight long years of doing battle with James Watt, Don Hodel, Anne Gorsuch and the rest were over.

The period was not without its benefits, however. Membership in most environmental groups soared in response to the vitriolic attacks from Mr. Watt and the others. Once Watt left, in October 1983, membership rolls grew more slowly, but support remained firm. It will be interesting to see what happens under Mr. Bush, who insisted throughout the campaign that he is an environmentalist.

Early indications are mixed and inconclusive–yet hopeful and promising. Allow me to briefly profile the new environmental chiefs in Washington.

Manuel Lujan, Secretary of the Interior

Lujan retired this year after some 20 years as a New Mexico representative in the House. He never scored well in the League of Conservation Voters’ biennial voting chart, racking up a lifetime average of around 20%, which is near the bottom of the heap. He has been a prime proponent of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Range to oil and gas exploration, which is likely to be the biggest conservation battle in Washington this year. On the plus side, he is said to be close to Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona, one of Congress’s most stalwart environmentalists. His confirmation hearings revealed almost nothing, except that he eschewed the confrontational rhetoric of Watt and hoped that all issues can be worked out amicably between all parties. Expect him to keep a low profile.

William Reilly, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency

Reilly is clearly tagged to be the administration’s environmental good guy in a very tough job. Reilly was routinely described in press reports as the first professional environmentalist ever to head the EPA, and so he is. A moderate Republican, Reilly has served for the past decade plus as president of the Conservation Foundation and, after the merger of the two organizations, as president of the World Wildlife Fund/U.S., as well. He is a believer in scientific studies, careful analysis and reasoned compromise and accomodition.

At his confirmation hearing, Reilly said what no one in the Reagan administration was willing to say for eight years: that it’s time to do something serious about acid rain and not simply launch another study. What this will be we must wait to find out, but it sounds promising.

Reilly’s biggest problem may well be logistic. Congress all but doubled the EPA’s responsibilities over the past eight years, while the Reagan crowd halved the agency’s budget. It is hopelessly behind schedule on a myriad of tasks, from tackling air pollution in cities to reviewing the toxicity of scores of pesticides. Launching new initiatives will not be easy.

Chairman, Council on Environmental Quality

This position used to be one of the most important in the executive branch’s environmental pantheon. A measure of how far it has fallen is that, as of mid-February, no one had been appointed to succeed Alan Hill, who served as chairman for all eight years of the Reagan administration. During the Nixon, Ford and Carter years, the CEQ coordinated federal environmental policy, reviewed environmental impact statements from other agencies and published invaluable annual reports on the state of the environment. When Reagan took office, the CEQ staff was slashed from more than 50 to fewer than 10. The agency has all but disappeared from public view. Like the EPA, the CEQ will be difficult to rebuild. Like the EPA, the difficulty–and the investment–would be well worth the candle.

One other morsel may indicate what’s in store.

Secretary of State James Baker

Baker took advantage of his first formal appearance following confirmation to call for urgent government action, unspecified, to reverse the greenhouse effect and halt the deterioration of atmospheric ozone.

I’ll keep you posted.

Books on the Environmental Movement

Blueprint for the Environment (Howe Brothers)is the environmental movement’s advice to George Bush. Released to considerable fanfare in December, this book outlines some 300 key policy recommendations for the new presidential administration compiled by the country’s leading organizations .

Crossroads: Environmental Priorities for the Future (Island Press)was edited by Peter Borrelli of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It contains thoughts on where the environmental movement is and where it is going from a diverse group of leaders including Barry Commoner, Stewart Udall and the new EPA Administrator, Bill Reilly .

The Poisoned Well. New Strategies for Groundwater Protection (Island Press)by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, is a comprehensive yet succinct handbook for activists hoping to force government agencies and private companies to protect and restore the purity of the ground water so many of us depend on. If you get your water from a well, you need this book.

Tom Turner, a writer and editor with over 20 years’ experience in the environmental field, is staff writer for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund [now Earthjustice], an independent environmental law firm that represents many organizations across the country. It is supported by private donations.  

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