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October 2004
Bush and the Environment
The Satya Interview with Robert S. Devine


Overlooking a clearcut, by Weyerhaeuser, along the boundary of a protected old growth forest in Willamette National Forest, Oregon.

Robert S. Devine started focusing on the environment early in his career. He was an editor at Rocky Mountain Magazine and has been a freelance journalist since 1982, writing mostly about the environment, natural history, and outdoor travel for a number of publications including The Atlantic Monthly, Audubon, National Geographic Traveler, and Mother Jones. His books include Alien Invasion: America’s Battle with Non-native Animals and Plants (National Geographic) and the National Geographic Guide to America’s Outdoors: Pacific Northwest.

Bush Versus the Environment (Anchor Books, 2004) may sound like a leftist tirade against the Bush administration, but it’s not. It is a well-researched primer on the environmental record of the current administration. And the record is pretty clear: by appointing corporate advocates to environment-related positions, fighting (or not) certain court cases, and an ongoing policy of secrecy, the Bush administration has systematically dismantled or overridden environmental protections, leaving the air, water and land exceptionally vulnerable to pollution and abuse. The winners are, naturally, large corporations; the losers, of course, are the environment and the American people, who will have to deal with the results for decades to come.

Catherine Clyne spoke with Robert S. Devine about the administration’s environmental record and what it may mean if Bush is elected in November.

Why did you write Bush Versus the Environment?
I’d been writing about the environment for 15 to 20 years—natural history articles, books and such. So when the Bush administration came in, in 2001, I was aware they might have a negative effect on the environment. But I was not prepared for just how negative it would be. After watching evidence accumulate for a year or two, and not seeing any other books on the subject, I just felt compelled. I think I first had the idea early in 2003 and almost immediately set to work on it.

For a little context, can you talk about how Republican presidents have historically been toward the environment and how Bush compares with other GOP administrations?
Actually, Republican presidents have done fairly well by the environment in earlier years, in the ‘60s and ‘70s when the environmental movement was first getting going. Our landmark environmental laws were mostly passed under Republican presidents, particularly Nixon. I can’t say I was fond of the man but he did sign some good laws.

In those times, Republican leaders often were supporters of the environment, particularly the conservation elements of it—public lands, endangered species, wildlife, national parks, that kind of thing.

Ronald Reagan brought in a whole different world. He certainly did not sign a bunch of landmark legislation and his appointment of James Watt as his first Secretary of the Interior was a sign that he had a very strong bias toward development over protecting the environment. Although Reagan was the president most similar to George W. Bush, I don’t think he followed through with that agenda nearly as much as he might have—public opposition and strong Congressional opposition, more than a change of heart, stopped him. He had to fire Watt and back off on a lot of the more extreme proposals. So the actual effects under Reagan were fairly negative but not disastrous.

Bush senior was fairly moderate on the environment, though clearly pro-business. Certainly the environment came second, but he wasn’t out to savage it; his administration was decent on the environment. Again, a pro-environment Congress was there to discourage harmful policies.

But alas, times have changed and the people George W. Bush has appointed are considerably more extreme than the people that Reagan was able to retain. Yet, you’d be surprised how many people from Reagan’s administration are in this one. Even though it’s been 20 years, many of them are still around.

One group you introduced me to in Bush Versus the Environment is Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP). I think most progressives would be surprised to learn that an environmental GOP political action committee exists. How much power and influence do you think they have?
Not much. Although their presence is significant, I don’t think they’ll change what the GOP leadership is doing. However, a lot of Republicans who aren’t part of the Republican leadership share REP’s views on the environment, and things are starting to be said. For example, prominent Republicans, such as Russell Train, who was administrator of the EPA under Nixon and Ford, have been making public statements expressing their unhappiness with Bush’s environmental policies. There have also been ranchers in the west where a lot of oil and gas exploration and coal-bed methane development is taking place—they’ve been speaking out for awhile. They are seeing firsthand devastation on the lands around them—sometimes literally in their backyards.

There’s also been quite an outcry among sportsmen—hunters and fishers—and most of them are rock-ribbed Republicans. I was just speaking to one yesterday as a matter of fact, and he’s vociferously upset about the Bush administration’s policies toward public lands—wetlands and pollution policies—because some of this is affecting wildlife—acid rain and mercury in particular. This is somebody in Michigan who is saying “I can catch a fish, but I can’t eat it.”

Interestingly enough, someone like environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says the same thing. Do you think that conservatives are afraid to break rank and openly criticize Bush about the environment?
Well, some of the sportsmen are doing it now, so they’re not afraid. I think, however, that those who are speaking out are probably the exception. I suspect there are many more disgruntled folks out there who feel frustrated by Bush’s environmental policies, but, especially during election time, are going to keep silent. They are supportive of him in other arenas and are reluctant to speak out on the environment.

There are anti-Bush PACs, most notably MoveOn, releasing ads criticizing the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. One of the primary problems you point out in your book is that the general public is largely unaware of what’s been going on environmentally with this administration. I wonder if PAC ads about Bush’s environmental record might be persuasive, or are these issues too complicated to simplify into 30 seconds?
Well, I think almost any issue is too complicated to put into 30 second ads. But then, I prefer books; I have a bias. I don’t think environmental issues are any more complex than those pertaining to Iraq--for Pete’s sake that’s not a simple issue—and they’re running 30-second spots about the war.

The conventional wisdom is that the environment is just not on anybody’s radar. But I think that’s only half-correct. Though it may not be the most important issue to very many people, it probably will play a significant part in the election. In fact, there’s a very interesting survey by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies that came out after the book was published. It looked into how the environment will figure in voting. They found that for 84 percent of the respondents, the environment will be a factor for them in their vote; and 35 percent said it would be a major factor.

Specifically, can you talk about a couple of the tactics that the Bush administration has used to undermine environmental protection in the U.S.?
Let me talk a little about the legal maneuvers, or what has at times been coined “sue-and-settle.” One case I used in the book to illustrate this dealt with wilderness issues, including the roadless rules. Right after they came into power, the Bush administration suspended the Roadless Rule—a Clinton era regulation that protected about 60 million acres of national forests from road building and logging. But because it was very popular among constituents the administration was forced to reinstate it. What people may not realize is that behind the scenes they worked to undermine it.

For example, they refused to appeal a strong court case because it had gone against the Roadless Rule, which is what they wanted. Fortunately, a judge allowed environmentalists to take the case forward. The environmentalists won. So, the administration simply began to undermine the rule outside the courtroom. The latest scheme is a proposal to make a default position that roadless areas can be developed, unless a state’s governor (where the national forest lands lie) specifically asks that they not be. And even then, the governor has to make the case to the federal government. This approach would be a defacto deathblow, because the administration could and likely would ignore many requests to protect roadless lands and because most of those roadless areas are in western states whose governors are pro-development and they would seldom seek protection.

Another Bush tactic I mention in the book is the abuse of science. Scientists have been taking a beating in the natural resource agencies. They have been fired, intimidated, and reports have been buried and altered. Scientific advisory committees have been stacked with representatives of industry, former lobbyists, and other self-interested people. What is taking place is the opposite of the “sound science” that this administration talks about all the time.

In February, the Union of Concerned Scientists came out with a report about this abuse. Approximately 60 very prominent scientists signed a statement accompanying the report in which they chastised the administration for its misuse of science.

The Union of Concerned Scientists replied to the administration’s rather feeble response with a new report adding even more examples of misuse. And about 5,300 scientists have signed on to the critical statement by those 60-some scientists. It is just becoming overwhelming. When you see reports on global warming containing information convenient for the energy industry, when facts are just stricken from existence, taken out of the record and in some cases re-written by White House representatives—it is really quite corrupt. An atrociously hypocritical blow to sound science.

Many of our readers are activists of some kind who have been involved with these issues for years. Some of the tactics you point out, for example lax enforcement of existing pollution regulations, or as animal advocates know, lax USDA slaughterhouse inspections, were problems of other administrations, like the Clinton administration. A change in president is not necessarily going to make a big difference. What are your thoughts on this view?
They are absolutely right in thinking that no administration has been perfect or even close to it. And I think it’s a very important point to make. Many of these issues have been around for a couple of decades and some are going to be around for a couple more, regardless of who is in the White House. However, if Kerry is in the White House it will greatly improve things.

With that in mind, what are some of the most important things Satya readers should be aware of when they enter the voting booths in November with regard to the Bush administration and the environment?
The issue of air pollution is the most glaring because the evidence is so strong and the harm so extensive. Many people in the Bush administration come from the energy industry, and so much of the air pollution problems can be traced to that industry. Bush has been protecting those industries to the detriment of the American public.

When people vote, they need to think about these big issues, such as air pollution. They need to think about what they’re doing to our health. Recently, another major report came out showing how devastating the lack of air pollution enforcement and regulation has been, and how much worse things will be if the Bush administration gets its way. This study compared other legislative proposals and enforcement of the existing Clean Air Act with Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative. The results show that by 2020 Senator Jeffords’ bill, for example, would save an additional 100,000 lives over the Clear Skies Initiative, and 8,000 more lives a year after 2020. Further, the Jeffords bill would result in tens of thousands fewer heart attacks, hundreds of thousands fewer asthma attacks, many fewer cases of chronic bronchitis…I could go on and on. And this is a problem we know how to fix. The technology is there; it is expensive, but not prohibitively so.

Many Democrats and progressives seem to feel that just by voting Bush out of office things will dramatically improve with regard to the environment. What’s your view on this?
As I mentioned, we couldn’t expect President Kerry to take care of everything. But I think he would have an enormous positive impact if elected. Start with the political appointees. Just imagine the difference if we cleared out all of those oil, gas, coal and timber representatives who are running all of our natural resource agencies and put in people who have a strong environmental ethic. It would make a gigantic difference in the way things are being run.

And beyond Congress, there are still many things a president can do: executive orders, administration actions, etc. Consider a negative example: Bush, below the public radar, sent out a memo to Bureau of Land Management offices telling them that their number one goal is to help get oil and gas leasing achieved. Now staffers in some BLM districts are spending nearly all their time facilitating oil and gas leasing. Some of them used to be out there protecting the land. Well, they’re not doing it anymore and it is because of the push from the White House. Clearly, the president can make a big difference.

Any final thoughts for our readers?
The Bush record on the environment is almost 100 percent negative, but I think it is important to leave with a positive note. The very secrecy that is the hallmark trade of the Bush environmental record is something we should take heart in. If they didn’t think that people would rebel if they knew what was going on, the administration wouldn’t have to hide behind a “green mask.” It shows how much power there is if people do make a fuss about it.

There is power in the fact that there is so much bipartisan support for the environment. It is something that the leadership in the GOP is really out of step with the people on, including their own constituents. Polls have shown for years that two-thirds to three-fourths of Americans—Republicans, Democrats, independents—consider themselves environmentalists and want a strong federal hand to help protect the environment. There is reason for optimism.

To learn more about what GOP environmentalists are doing, visit Environment 2004 at, or check out Republicans for Environmental Protection at


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