We're at a definite turn in the road," says Nathaniel P. Reed, assistant secretary of the Interior for fish, wildlife and parks under presidents Nixon and Ford. "George Bush will have a personal involvement with environmental issues. Interior is going to be a far different place, as will the Environmental Protection Agency. You can bet on it."
Frank Blake, general counsel at the EPA from 1985 until earlier this year, and now a candidate for the agency's top job, says, "The new President will be committed to environmental issues. That's going to make a huge difference. I think you'll see initiatives from the White House on acid rain, clean air, clean water, and parks maintenance."
If Reed and Blake are correct, Bush's election may herald a kinder, gentler era for the environment. Skeptics point out that while Bush presents himself as a Republican conservationist in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition, he has supported most of the Reagan Administration's anti-conservation policies. Nonetheless, during the campaign, Bush said that, as President, he would:
•Propose legislation to curb acid rain by limiting nitrogen-oxide emissions from power plants.
•Convene a global conference to discuss remedies for ozone depletion, deforestation and acid rain.
•Support a stronger Clean Air Act, which the Reagan Administration has successfully resisted.
•Ban all ocean dumping of sewage sludge by 1991 and support the creation of national marine sanctuaries.
•Vigorously enforce toxic-waste laws.
•Promote a "no net loss" policy for wetlands, by which a new ecosystem would be created whenever development disturbs existing wetlands.
•Consider acquiring more land for the national parks system and elevating the EPA to cabinet-level status.
Bush would have broad bipartisan support in Congress for nearly all of these initiatives, but he's also committed to cutting the federal deficit and not increasing taxes. Hence money for environmental programs will be hard to find. Last week, in a report on the Reagan Administration's environmental record, the General Accounting Office, Congress's nonpartisan auditing arm, concluded that the Administration had not reduced air or water pollution and had largely ignored hazardous-waste laws. But the GAO went on to say that, for example, it would cost $1.9 billion to stem the deterioration of the national parks and $3 billion to reclaim the denuded lands around abandoned coal mines.
"What you need to take care of acid rain and a lot of other things is money," says a source close to the Bush camp. "George Bush would like to propose things in these areas, but in a cost-cutting era he may not be able to do what's needed."
Michael Bean, a senior staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization that has been critical of the Reagan environmental record, is hoping for better days. "I think Bush is going to be cornered by the deficit, but I expect a markedly better record. He has a more enlightened attitude, and he doesn't share Mr. Reagan's personal ignorance of environmental issues."
While constrained by fiscal realities, Bush will signal his intentions on environmental issues by the people he selects to implement his policies. He'll likely banish anyone remaining at Interior who served under James Watt, the department's infamous secretary from 1981 to '83. However, that doesn't mean Bush's appointments will please die-hard conservationists. Two former EPA administrators with strong conservation credentials, Russell Train and William Ruckelshaus, are advising him, but so are two prodevelopment Western legislators, Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and Idaho Senator James McClure.
Ideally, Bush will preside over a substantive, nonideological debate on the environment—the sort of dialogue Washington has not seen in quite a while. "Moderation is the key; look at the ANWR issue," says Brent Erickson, a Simpson aide, referring to the proposal to open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. "Bush says he would favor development in a crisis. Preservationists are against that, and I know Senator Simpson would like to move a little faster on ANWR. But everyone can live with Bush's decision.
"Then look at wetlands. No net loss is something conservationists applaud, and Senator Simpson feels comfortable with it too."
Blake believes the Bush Administration will promote compromise on the environment. "He's an outdoors-man who cares deeply about these issues," he says. "He'll be involved because he's an environmentalist in the true sense."
The President as an environmentalist—that's also something Washington hasn't seen in quite a while.