The Reagan Administration’s Environmental Policies

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The Reagan administration's environmental policies—which stood to reverse decades of progress—was of grave concern to the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth.

These are truly odd times for the environmental movement: Unprecedented bumbles and disasters are being hatched almost daily in Washington, while public support for environmental protection is growing at never-before-seen rates. The Reagan administration’s emerging environmental policies are threatening to undo nearly a century of hard-won progress … yet at the same time conservation groups are enjoying dramatic surges in membership and contributions. In the light of such developments, perhaps we should take a look at the Reagan appointees who are–by and large–responsible for the strengthening of positions on both sides of the environmental fence.

Watt’s Up at Interior

The Secretary of the Interior is the chief conservation officer of the United States. He’s responsible for managing nearly 25% of the nation’s lands, including our national parks, wildlife refuges, some recreation areas, the outer continental shelf, and the vast tracts of western acreage that are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. For decades–whether Republicans or Democrats were in power–our Interior Secretaries have pursued a policy of protecting the territory under their control.

But in James Watt we have a new breed of manager, a man who believes that the public lands exist to support the free enterprise economy of our country … as espoused by his boss, the President. For example, the new Interior Secretary proposes to turn substantial parts of the management of national parks over to private interests. He also wants to “inventory”, as he says, public lands for their mineral content … expecting us to believe that corporations intend to spend millions of dollars on such exploration and then wait happily in the wings until those resources are “really needed.” Other actions that bode ill for our environment include attempts to open up oil exploration on the continental shelf (where the majority of our seafood is currently harvested), a partial dismantling of the agencies that oversee strip mining, and a drastic curtailment of government efforts to protect endangered species from extinction (both in our country and abroad).

For these reasons and others which are being added to the list daily, Mr. Watt has inspired widespread criticism, which has led to requests from many groups for his resignation … and even to the circulation of a recall petition, sponsored by Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and others.

A Dentist to Extract Energy

All of the skills that James Edwards brought to his new job as Secretary of Energy resulted from his working as an oral surgeon and later serving as governor of South Carolina. He’s been a relatively quiet administrator so far, although he did suggest–in a controversial interview published by his hometown paper–that the antinuclear movement includes “subversive” elements, “manipulated” by unnamed sinister forces that “want to bring this country to its knees”. When pressed for specifics, Secretary Edwards would not elaborate. He has also stated that nuclear power is “the cleanest, safest, and cheapest” source of electricity available … which, particularly with respect to “cheapest,”, shows an astonishing ignorance of dozens upon dozens of recent analyses from sources as diverse as Wall Street and the government itself.

A Logger to Defend the Forests

For years, conservation-minded critics of the U.S. Forest Service have worried that trees are being cut more rapidly than they’re being replaced in our national forests. However, John Crowell, the. new Agriculture Department official in charge of the national forests, wants to double the amount of timber cut from those woodlands … just as he did when he was General
Counsel of the Louisiana Pacific Lumber Company.

The List Goes On

Anne Gorsuch, Mr. Reagan’s appointee to direct the Environmental Protection Agency, has employed a covey of big-business lawyers to help run her office. In an early move, Ms. Gorsuch’s EPA reversed gears on the cleanup 6f chemical dump sites. What’s more, her newly hired head of the agency’s strip-mining office spent time (on his previous job in Ohio) trying to
get the strip-mining control law declared unconstitutional (He lost that battle, so now he must enforce the law he fought.)

What’s a Person to Do?

In the face of such an obvious lack of concern for–or understanding of–our environmental dilemmas, should we just give up in disgust? Not at all! As bleak as the scene in Washington appears to be, there are plenty of good signs elsewhere. Folks across the country have been moved by the current turn of events, and they’re joining environmental groups in droves so that their voices can be heard. In the recent New Jersey primary election, for example, conservation-minded candidates won four out of four nominations for the state legislature. Environmentalists in the House of Representatives are regaining a bit of their courage, too, and should put up a good battle against the legislative assaults that the administration and its allies promise to mount against environmental causes.

Still, the immediate future looks as if it’ll hold its share of challenges. Hence, it’s more important than ever that you let your representatives know just what you think. Secretary Watt continually states that the majority of U.S. citizens support him, and that those who protest his actions are simply a vocal minority. Don’t leave any doubt which side you’re on!

A Short Energy Quiz

Here’s a test that almost no one–including many people in high places–can get right. List, in descending order, the relative contributions of the following sources of energy (given alphabetically here) to our nation’s power consumption: coal, gas, hydro, nuclear, and oil. Ready? The winner by a wide margin is coal, which supplies nearly half of the country’s
electrical capacity. Then–in declining order–we have gas, hydro, nuclear, and oil.

We mention this to give you another version of the rosy picture still being painted by many proponents of nuclear energy. The fact is that atomic power’s contribution to our energy needs slipped last year (from about 12% to 10%) and would have come in last if oil hadn’t slipped even further.

However, figures like these fail to consider conservation, which–in its own way–has contributed at least as much to solving our energy problems as has nuclear power or oil. In fact, despite the pronouncements of the supply-side energy types, conservation is today’s most economical way of augmenting future supplies of energy.

Welcome Back

We’re exceedingly pleased to be offering this column to readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. In forthcoming issues we’ll be discussing other topics that we think will be vitally important to everyone who’s concerned with our environment.