Planet Earth News: Ecomidity, the Clean Water Act and Nature Library Selections

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/GORDON_SHUMWAY
In the northern Rockies surrounding Yellowstone National Park are the last remnants of the noble grizzly bear population in the lower 48.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS environmental planet earth news briefs includes the environmental movement’s cautiousness in recent environmental problems, Congress passes the Clean Water Act over the President’s veto and new selections from the nature library.

Environmental Planet Earth News

Ecotimidity

Is the environmental movement getting too cautious?
Consider the following:

  • In west-central Texas, as I mentioned in issue 103, plans
    are afoot to build the Stacey Dam just below the confluence
    of the Colorado and Concho rivers. There are many things
    wrong with the proposal, not the least of which is the fact
    that, if implemented, it would wreck most of the remaining
    habitat for the endangered Concho water snake and probably
    kill most of the snakes outright.
  • In Sacramento,
    California, the city fathers have given their blessing to a
    big real estate development on the outskirts of town. The
    development is in flagrant violation of the city’s own
    master plan, which calls for building in vacant parts of
    town before reaching out to the fringes. The policy was
    intended to minimize commuting, cut down on air pollution
    and preserve agricultural lands.
  • In the northern Rockies
    surrounding Yellowstone National Park are the last remnants
    of the noble grizzly bear population in the lower 48.
    Habitat for some bears is shrinking as people usurp the
    land for roads, gas wells, ski resorts and logging
    operations. Yet Montana directly threatens the
    grizzly–an endangered species–with a hunting
    season.

Classic environmental problems all, but they have something
unexpected in common: The environmental community is
ambivalent about what to do.

In Texas, they remember the snail darter. In the mid-’70s,
the Tennessee Valley Authority commenced construction of
the Tellico Dam on the New River in Tennessee. The dam was
a real stinkeroo: It cost more than it could ever hope to
return, it destroyed valuable farmland and a lovely stretch
of river, and it drove people from land their forebears had
lived on for two centuries.

None of the economic or aesthetic arguments against the dam
had slowed it down one iota. But then a biologist in waders
netted a small fish he later identified as a snail darter.
It was, almost by definition, an endangered species, since
it was so little known in the area. The researcher then
went fishing for a lawyer, the lawyer sued to stop
construction of the dam and the court ordered work
suspended.

The half-built dam stayed that way for many months as the
legal battle raged. Editorial cartoonists took great
delight in this David vs. Goliath contest. For the most
part, the press heaped ridicule on those who would use a
tiny fish to stop something so nearly sacred as a dam. In
the end, Congress ordered that the dam be finished.

Opponents of the Stacey Dam don’t want the same thing to
happen to them, so they’re loath to ride the Concho water
snake to the courthouse.

Much the same holds true up in grizzly country. In Montana,
some environmentalists are nervous about coming out
foursquare against the state-sanctioned hunt, for
goodness’ sake. It’s not a big item, to be sure (the
maximum number of grizzlies allowed to die in
Montana–from natural causes or bullets–would
not exceed 14 for the year), but it’s shocking to many
people that a rare creature like the griz can be hunted for
sport. Again, a lawsuit might well stop the hunt, but the
political heat would be fierce, and hunters (who are
potential allies in the fight against habitat destruction)
would be alienated.

In Sacramento, the subject is different but the
faint-heartedness is familiar. There, some environmental
types are leery of suing the EPA to enforce the Clean Air
Act for fear that Congress might turn around and amend the
act out from under them.

Indeed it might. Congress could toss the Clean Air Act
clean out the window and substitute a bill that puts a
bounty on anyone who wears hiking boots or knows the words
to “Val-de Ri, Val-de Ra.”

But Congress could do that anyway. The real question is,
What’s the use of having a Clean Air Act and an Endangered
Species Act if they aren’t enforced–and enforced
vigorously?

One of the principal duties of the environmental movement
is to ride herd on government to see that the laws that
were won with such sophisticated lobbying are put to their
intended purposes. If environmentalists won’t insist on
strict adherence to the laws of the land, who will?

Washington Watch

As I intimated in this space last issue, Congress quickly
enacted the Clean Water Act following President Reagan’s
veto last November. Branded a “budget buster” by Mr.
Reagan, the bill provides some $20 billion in grants to
states for sewage treatment plants over the next 10 years.

The president vetoed the bill again, but this time Congress
hadn’t left Washington, and the veto was thunderously
overridden. With Democrats back in the Senate saddle, this
may not be the last time Congress butts heads with the
White House on environmental matters.

Another controversial issue that could easily lead to
confrontation is acid rain. Despite escalating complaints
from the Canadian government and accelerating warnings from
doctors and scientists about the disastrous impact of
acid-laden rain, snow and fog, the administration continues
to argue that more research is necessary before decisive
action is taken. Congress came close to passing an acid
rain bill last session, despite the administration’s
opposition; it’s likely to pass this time.

Nature Library

Paul Ehrlich, certainly no stranger to MOTHER’S readers,
has just published a new book: The Machinery of
Nature
(Simon and Schuster, $18.95), an
up-to-the-minute layman’s guide to exactly what the title
suggests. Like other Ehrlich books, it’s sprightly,
comprehensive and pulls no punches. It does raise one
imponderable question, though: When in the dickens does
Professor Ehrlich find time to teach? (He’s got another
book, Earth, coming out soon.)

Editor’s Note: Tom Turner, a writer and editor who’s
worked in the environmental field for 17 years, is with the
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, an independent environmental law firm that represents many organizations
across the country. It is supported principally by private
donations. For more information, write Sierra Club Legal
Defense Fund, San Francisco, CA.