Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Crumbs for environmentalists? Or a real change?

Almost as if struck by a divine awakening, President Bush suddenly is scattering dollops of pro-environmental decisions around the landscape. This has stirred happy huzzahs from critics who've otherwise watched in dismay as Bush for five years went out of his way to show disdain for nature and its guardians.

Coincidentally, these surprising decisions all occurred with the arrival of former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, the new Interior secretary, and the departure of his predecessor, Gale Norton, who was regarded in environmental circles as the Bush cabinet's icy Cruella DeVille.

Are these merely crumbs to silence critics just before the November Senate and House elections or a real change of heart in the Bush White House?

In scope, the president's largest gesture was designating 1,400 square miles around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as a marine reserve, protecting hundreds of species of ocean life. However, research scientists are worried that Bush's designation may be so stringent they will be barred from studying wildlife there.

Another welcome decision was granting requests of three states—Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina—to prohibit logging in remote national forests. Other states have lined up with similar requests to maintain roadless areas.

New Interior Secretary Kempthorne also announced a drastic reversal of an earlier Norton policy. Instead of giving recreation interests equal footing with conservation on public lands, the new policy is to emphasize conservation.

He also won new legislation that eliminated plans to sell public lands to raise $800 million for rural schools.

These are salutary steps away from the harsh indifference to the environment that Bush has shown since taking office.

However, a few good deeds do not totally constitute reform. The president still hasn't reined in air and water pollution of smokestack industries, nor has he demanded better fuel performance of autos.

Also still on hold is the Kyoto Treaty that would force emission reductions on U.S. and global industry to attack severe climate change.

As a condition of tackling global warming, President Bush demanded "good science" to prove it exists. That science seems to have been confirmed in a 155-page report from the National Academy of Sciences that concludes earth warming is a fact, and humankind is at fault.

Will a "new" Bush seize on this data and declare all-out war on global warming and industrial emissions? Or, is the "old" Bush merely throwing a few politically safe pro-environment bon-bons to mollify critics and ignore more damaging environmental issues involving corporate political supporters?

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