It has been a busy few months of cutting costs, stifling regulations, and limiting government’s reach for George W. Bush and his business allies. Now that Bush has halted U.S. efforts to solve global warming, sidelined rules to protect 60 million acres of wilderness, suspended new limits on arsenic in drinking water, and supported new drilling in the Arctic, the world as viewed from industrial front offices certainly looks like a safer place.

Coastal-plain sailing for industry?

Photo: Alaska Wilderness League.

For conservation advocates in the states, though, the president’s campaign to reverse sound environmental policy is all too familiar. These early forays by the White House to undermine popular safeguards are part of a proven strategic plan, tested and perfected in GOP-dominated states in the 1990s. The strategy: Lower regulatory barriers and make it much easier for the oil, mining, forestry, construction, and real estate industries to gain access to water, air, land, timber, minerals, and energy.

Washington and the nation are witnessing the early stages of what happens when a determined chief executive and a conservative legislature systematically transform environmental policy into an economic development program for a select group of political donors.

Lessons from Michigan

No state, arguably, has been a more important testing ground for the GOP’s efforts to turn environmental programs into mush than Michigan.

Elected governor in 1991 on a platform of jobs, education, welfare reform, tax cuts, and deregulation, conservative Republican John Engler has since built a political juggernaut. Conservatives control every major elected office in state government, with the exception of attorney general. Engler’s prowess in raising money and getting his people into office has helped him become one of the most influential Republican leaders in the nation.

GOP superstar John Engler.

Photo: Michigan Office of the Governor.

It was Engler who, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 1996, first identified and then rallied his colleagues around Bush as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. The two men are personal and political friends and agree about limiting government’s role in environmental management.

An examination of Michigan’s environmental record can thus be helpful in understanding and predicting the steps the Bush administration may take to encourage exploitation of the nation’s most prized natural resources — and also the political consequences of these decisions.

Judging Engler’s 10-year record as Michigan’s chief resource steward against the state’s tradition of leadership on the environment and public heath is similar to comparing a common moth to a monarch butterfly. From 1970 to 1990, Michigan set the standard nationally for effective action to safeguard natural resources. Michigan was the first state in the nation to ban DDT, the first state to establish a comprehensive toxic waste clean-up program, the first state to establish a wetland protection program. At the core of Michigan’s policy was a firm belief in the principle that economic advancement and environmental protection were compatible goals.

As governor, Engler redefined the principles of economic development and environmental protection and tilted conservation and public health protection programs heavily toward a “growth at any cost” agenda. Several of the steps he took anticipated those Bush would take a national level a decade later. Consider:

Michigan, 1991: Engler cut the state environmental agency’s budget to reduce staff. In November, by executive order, he also dismantled 19 separate independent citizen oversight boards that for more than 20 years played an integral role in providing a forum for ordinary people to influence decisions made by the Department of Natural Resources.

U.S., 2001: In his own budget proposal last week, President Bush called for cutting the Interior Department’s budget by 3.5 percent and the U.S. EPA’s budget by 6.4 percent.

Michigan, October 1995: Engler appointed Russell Harding — a libertarian activist with a record of skirting the law — as director of the state Department of Environmental Quality. Members of the development community benefit by gaining expedited permits for tearing up wetlands, paving over farmland, and adding pollutants to the air and water.

U.S., 2001: Bush’s Interior secretary, Gale Norton, is an acolyte of James Watt, the libertarian, free-market ideologue who served as President Reagan’s Interior secretary.

In a host of other actions taken by Engler, including passage of one new law that allows industries to inspect themselves and another that makes it more difficult for citizens to access public documents under the state Freedom of Information Act, the governor established a new business-friendly culture in government. Environmental and public health protection were an afterthought, just as they are today for Bush.

The Michigan governor’s approach to environmental stewardship caused damage across the state:

  • Some parts of southeastern Michigan, home to half the state’s population, are regularly inundated by flood waters — the result, in part, of the unlawful filling and paving of rain-absorbing wetlands permitted by the Engler administration.
  • The flooding has led to fecal contamination — and the state’s unwillingness to enforce the U.S. Clean Water Act regularly leads to the closing of public beaches on Lake St. Clair, a primary recreation resource for more than 1 million people north of Detroit.
  • Northern Michigan’s once-proud blanket of forest is now laced with thousands of clearings for natural gas wells, roads, pipelines, and industrial installations — clearcuts actively encouraged and subsidized by the Engler administration.

Wolverine in Sheep’s Clothing

The question is how Engler got away with his anti-environmental policies in a state that boasts strong citizen support for conserving natural resources and stricter enforcement of environmental law. The answers, which state environmental leaders assert are crucial to both understanding and responding to the Bush administration’s initiatives, are rhetoric and political skill.

First, Engler always sounds green. “One of the greatest obligations of state government is to manage and conserve our natural resources for the sake of this and future generations,” Engler said in his 1998 state of the state address. Bush also takes pains to sound green. Even as he removed the U.S. from the international global warming treaty negotiations, Bush said he was “concerned” about the issue.

Michigan’s yicky lake show.

Photo: U.S Forest Service.

Second, Engler is not above bending the truth. He and his spokesmen are fond of saying that Michigan’s environment “is in better shape than at any time in Michigan’s history.” What they don’t say is that there is slim evidence to support the statement. The state’s water monitoring program, which collected regular samples from 600 sites statewide in the 1970s and 1980s, disintegrated because of Engler-inspired budget cuts. By 1995, the state monitored water from just 13 sites. The water monitoring program is only now being rebuilt.

Third, Engler, like Bush, is a practical politician. In 1997, in his state of the state address, Engler saluted the property rights movement, a new force in state politics that chafed at public land ownership. “I think that gov
ernment already owns enough land — one in five acres statewide,” he said.

But four years later, after voters in Michigan overwhelmingly voiced their support for public land by approving new bond initiatives and property tax increases to buy open space, Engler changed his tune. In his 2001 state of the state, delivered this January, Engler did an about-face and claimed credit for adding to Michigan’s 4 million-acre public domain, the largest of any state east of the Mississippi River. “During the past decade, more than 46,000 acres of land were acquired by the Department of Natural Resources and local governments for public use,” he boasted.

Even Engler’s staunchest foes marvel at his talents. “He’s been able to do what he does because when he needs to, he’ll adjust his position and his rhetoric. He’s smart and he’s prepared,” said Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council and a former three-term Democratic state senator who served with Engler in the legislature.

But Pollack and other state environmental leaders claim that Engler’s approach fostered a climate of almost third-world political favoritism and environmental recklessness.

Oil’s not well in Michigan.

Photo: Michigan Land Use Institute.

Take the oil industry, a key Engler and Bush ally, as an example. From 1990 to 1998, according to public records, the Michigan energy industry contributed $383,400 to Engler. The investment paid off. In 1993, senior state officials and industry executives privately negotiated a sweetheart deal that allowed natural gas prospectors to write off virtually all their production costs for new wells on state land before paying royalties to the state. The deal, which never came before the legislature for review, accelerated gas drilling in state forests, causing hundreds of thousands of acres to be damaged. It also drained $8 million a year from the Natural Resources Trust Fund, a public account derived from royalty revenues and used to buy ecologically valuable parcels for natural areas and recreation.

President Bush and his allies in Congress are already proposing similar subsidies for their friends in the oil industry in an energy bill introduced in early March by Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Good Guys Strike Back

A permissive approach to resource exploitation and weakened environmental protection caught on with voters and political leaders across the country in the economic doldrums of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Conservatives came to power promising to cut taxes, reduce regulations, and get “big government” off the back of business. The rhetoric promised more efficient and effective regulatory agencies. The reality, as Michigan’s experience attests, is much different.

Showdown at sundown.

But Michigan also serves as a warning for Bush. In recent months, Engler has come under significant grassroots pressure from voters upset about the state’s emphasis on economic development at the expense of clean air and water. Public hearings on disputed air, water, and hazardous waste permits are attracting hundreds of citizens who call on state regulators to enforce state environmental laws. The Sierra Club’s membership in Michigan has increased 80 percent in the last decade. More attention is paid to environmental issues in the state media. And prominent Democrats preparing to run for governor next year, among them U.S. Rep. David Bonior, have identified strengthening the state’s environmental programs as one of the top campaign issues.

Engler spent a decade writing a new compact with citizens and his industrial allies that put jobs, profit, and growth ahead of all other social values. Now that compact shows signs of vulnerability. National environmental leaders and others intent on protecting public health and America’s natural resources should learn from Michigan’s experience, opposing bad ideas at every turn, exposing political favoritism that corrupts public decision-making, and rallying public support for environmentally sensible policies.