T he Great Dissembler, former president Bill Clinton, was in Denver on Tuesday hawking his hagiography, “My Life,” and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a few cheap shots at the sitting president. We understand this was all part of the promotion, a way to pump up book sales by making his appearance seem more newsworthy than it was. But we found particularly galling Clinton’s comments concerning the current administration’s allegedly poor environmental record, and his attempts to strike the pose as a much better protector of the planet. This, as with the biography itself, is pure revisionism.
Clinton called his environment accomplishments “one of the least appreciated” but “best parts” of his tenure, in one media interview, while blasting President Bush’s recent decision to do away with a roadless rule Clinton approved as one of his last actions in office. He portrayed Bush’s decision to remand roadless decisions to the national forests and states as one that would “doubtless make some economic interests happy,” echoing the by-now stale refrain that this is a favor to the timber industry. “By giving 100 percent of (roadless decisions) back to the states, (the administration) really put it all at risk,” Clinton said. “There is no national policy here except to let the developers persuade whatever governors and state legislatures they can persuade. It’s like saying these are state forests, not national forests.”
But the fact that the roadless plan was approved so late in his administration, as part of the 11th-hour orgy of federal rulemaking that transpired as the Clintonistas were cleaning out their offices, suggests the roadless rule was more an afterthought than a priority. Chances are, the ex-president didn’t even know what he was signing off on.
The roadless rule was approved at the last second because it would otherwise have run up against a buzz saw of opposition from Congress, where it was recognized as a slippery, dishonest, typically Clintonesque way to create 60 million acres of wilderness without having to bother with a wilderness designation law. It also served as a back-door way to reverse the Forest Service’s traditional multiple use mandate without having to risk controversy. And the impropriety of Clinton’s action was recognized by two federal courts that threw out the rule.
Clinton personally never seemed to care a whit about the environment, except when it fit into some grander political calculation. It wasn’t by chance that Clinton’s only other major environmental “accomplishment,” the creation through executive order of a number of national monuments, came just in time to secure Green support for his 1996 re-election bid.
That action, too, was undertaken in a typically Clintonesque way, by using an obscure, rarely invoked executive order to skirt the need to consult Congress. The designations not only came as an unpleasant surprise to Congress, but to many governors and local officials in the states involved. So locally unpopular was the designation of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for instance, that Clinton didn’t dare make the announcement there, but went instead to Arizona.
All the Bush administration has done in reversing the roadless rule is conform to the law — something Clinton himself had trouble with — and live up to the current president’s pledge to place more power over public lands decisions in state and local hands.
Devolving more of these decisions to states is not “saying these are state forests, not national forests,” as Clinton suggested. It’s merely showing more respect for the ability of Westerners to have a say in what occurs on the vast federal holdings in the region. And it’s the only fair and sensible thing to do, since it’s we in the hinterlands who have to live with the sometimes unpleasant consequences of Washington-made federal lands policies. Our forests are burning today in part because of the excessive trust we placed in federal forest management strategies.
We think the Bush administration was correct, as both a matter of practicality and principle, to leave the tailoring of roadless tracts to governors. Clinton and other critics claim such decisions are too important not to be made in Washington, the locus of all wisdom in the world (and the place where the environmental lobby is most powerful). But that’s the kind of condescending attitude we in the West are fed up with.
Don’t worry, Washington; we can handle some things ourselves.