Don't Get Bogged Down in ANWR

January 15, 2001

Weeks before taking office, the Bush transition team is on the verge of a serious political mistake on environmental issues. This mistake threatens the administration's credibility and makes it unlikely that we will see the resolution to any environmental problems in the next four years.

The mistake is in thinking that it can open up a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration and drilling. When Congress created the refuge in 1980, it left open the possibility for such oil drilling, but only after further Congressional authorization. Environmentalists claim that such drilling will harm caribou, bow whale, and other wildlife.

Now, with a Republican majority in Congress and a president- and vice-president-elect with backgrounds in the oil industry, some people are fooling themselves into thinking that the time is ripe for pushing for oil drilling in ANWR. With energy prices at near-record levels, they reason, members of the public will gladly support anything that will reduce gasoline prices. Oil industry leaders and conservative think tank analysts are telling themselves that ANWR is a winnable issue. This only shows how politically inexperienced these people are.

The environmental movement has been literally starving for such an opportunity for the past eight years. Few people are aware of the tremendous impact the election of Bill Clinton had on the environmental community in 1992. For twelve years, environmentalists had boosted their memberships by claiming that Republicans in the White House were threatening the environment. When a Democrat was elected, tens of thousands of people figured that the problem was solved and let their environmental memberships lapse. The result was a serious financial crisis for many of those groups (see

Into this funding breach stepped a few major foundations, led by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Formerly grassroots-oriented environmental groups were suddenly heavily dependent on foundation fundraising. But the foundation support came with strings attached: The groups receiving the money had to endorse the foundations' environmental agenda, which tended to an extreme, hard line. The environmental community suffered through virtual witch hunts as groups purged themselves of the more moderate elements that might threaten foundation grants.

As a result, the environmental movement today is much more radical and less compromising than the movement was in 1992. Just as the foundations have centrally controlled the environmental groups, free-market environmental ideas and decentralized solutions are considered a traitorous compromise or an evil to be cast out in favor of central control.

Yet environmentalists today still remember the glory days of the Reagan-Watt years, when a single fundraising letter could increase a group's membership by 20 or 30 percent. Thus, they were quick to jump on Bush's selection of Gail Norton as Interior Secretary, calling her anti-environmental and the next James Watt because she supports (gasp!) private property rights. If she is confirmed (and environmentalists vow to fight her confirmation), she WILL become the next James Watt in the sense that she will be the environmentalists' major fundraising tool of the next few years.

Democrats in Congress will enthusiastically support environmental causes to polarize people away from the Republicans. Yet environmental groups also enjoy the support of numerous Republican members of Congress, representatives of suburbanites who are fiscally conservative but who support environmental causes. In the past four years, environmentalists were consistently supported by forty members of the House, more than enough to block any legislation deemed anti-environmental.

This combination of Democrats and suburban Republicans can be overcome only when the environmental community is divided on some issue. Suburban Republicans and many Democrats will support a bill opposed by major environmental groups if the bill has the support of a credible minority in the environmental community. The Quincy Library Bill overwhelmingly passed both the House and the Senate despite strong opposition from major environmental groups. The bill, which gave a collaborative committee of timber industry leaders and environmentalists a major say in the management of two California national forests, gained political support because bone fide environmentalists in the Quincy Library Group endorsed it.

ANWR is not an issue that will divide the environmental community. If the Republicans get away with drilling for oil in ANWR, environmental leaders will say, they can get away with anything. People who have never been to Alaska and can't tell the difference between a caribou and a mule deer will gladly write their representatives and donate to environmental groups to save ANWR from oil drilling.

I personally have no idea whether oil drilling will hurt caribou, a question that is even now being examined by the National Research Council. But in a situation such as this, the scientific issues are irrelevant; all that counts is politics.

Nor will high energy prices influence the debate. Some environmentalist will do a study finding that all the oil in ANWR will only meet U.S. energy needs for three weeks or only reduce gasoline prices by 2 cents a gallon. Oil industry researchers would probably blow a hundred holes in such studies, but they won't make any difference. Most people find the Natural Resources Defense Council more credible than the American Petroleum Institute, so the environmental claims will become factoids. The very fact that ANWR is so far away that few people have ever been there will help the environmentalists.

The Bush administration still has an opportunity to dig itself out of the trap it has laid for itself. Everyone in the administration should shut up about ANWR. Bush should tell the Alaska Congressional delegation that he will not endorse any proposals to open ANWR to oil drilling. After all, the oil is not going anywhere; it will still be there four or forty years from now if it turns out that we need it and it can be extracted without hurting the wildlife.

Instead of putting energy into a losing battle such as ANWR, the administration should identify and implement a number of relatively innocuous demonstration projects testing alternatives to traditional federal land management. Environmentalists, industry, scientists, and members of Congress all agree that the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other federal land agencies are pretty screwed up. There is little agreement on what the best alternative is, but there is broad support for experimenting with different ideas.

With nearly 400 units of the National Park System, nearly 300 national wildlife refuges, 120 national forests, and 59 BLM districts, we have a lot of opportunities for experimentation. The Forest Options Group and Federal Range Reform Group have identified a number of pilot projects testing alternative funding and governance mechanisms.

If she is confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, Gail Norton should try some of these alternative funding and governance systems on national parks, BLM lands, and other federal lands. Some units of the National Park System could be funded entirely out of their own revenues. Others could be set up with a board of trustees replacing the Park Service bureaucracy. BLM districts and national forests could experiment with alternative systems of fire administration. Successful demonstration projects could be emulated on other federal lands, leading to a revolution in federal land management that may eventually even influence the ANWR debate.

Republicans claim to favor the decentralization that is implicit in many of these reforms. But the problem with centralized government is that centralized reformers cannot imagine how to reform from the bottom up. So even those who support decentralization go for top-down schemes that only make the bureaucracies more powerful than ever.

For example, in his election campaign Bush foolishly sought environmental credibility by proposing to eliminate the so-called "backlog" of reconstruction projects in national parks. This backlog is really just an effort by Park Service officials to get larger appropriations, at least a quarter of which will go into administrative overhead. Much of the money would be wasted on ridiculously expensive employee housing, quarter-million dollar pit toilets, unnecessary visitors' centers, and other extravagances. While the Park Service bureaucracy will appreciate such "park barrel," environmentalists won't.

If Norton or others in the Bush administration push for oil drilling in ANWR, environmentalists will so demonize the administration that the opportunity for decentralized demonstration projects will be lost. Hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands will suffer another four years of ecological mismanagement. The Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, and Fish & Wildlife Service will continue to spend $6 billion per year doing nearly nothing. The only winners of an ANWR debate will be the environmental bureaucracies that use any ANWR proposals as their principle fundraising tool for the next four years.

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