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Wilderness Society's Meadows focuses on enviro movement's direction after election

With the White House and Congress in Republican hands, environmental groups haven't been scoring many victories in Washington lately. And many see the public as more concerned with high energy prices -- and finding new energy sources -- than with conservation. How can environmentalists have an effect on air, water, habitat and climate change policy and debate? What does the future hold for the movement? Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, joins OnPoint to talk about the current strategy for environmentalism and where it's headed in the future.

Transcript

Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. With us today is Mr. Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society. Also with us is Dan Berman, reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Mr. Meadows, thanks for being here.

Bill Meadows: Thank you very much, Colin.

Colin Sullivan: I'd like to first start out with there is a notorious article recently written by Michael Shellenberger talking about the death of environmentalism, saying, "Environmental groups are stuck in the past, weaker than you've been in 40 years." What's your response to that? Are environmental groups weak? Are you stuck in the strategies of the past?

Bill Meadows: You know, it -- there are good points made in this article, "Death of Environmentalism." But the way that I've looked at this is to look more at the future of conservation, and I am -- I'm concerned that the article has gotten more play about the past than the future, and there's -- there are good questions that are raised, but I think that this was an opinion piece. It was argumentative. I think it was incomplete and inaccurate in some cases in setting the argument. But it does raise questions about the way we should work in the future, and organizations like the Wilderness Society have been examining the way we work. We think there are places and policies that need to be defended in the way that we've done that in the past. But there are new approaches. There are new audiences. There are new constituents. There are new partners in conservation that we need to be able to work with. So it points the way to the future, and I, you know, I applaud them for raising the question and beginning the debate.

Colin Sullivan: Well, part of what Shellenberger says is what environmental groups have failed to do is to reach out to sort of the common American person to bring -- and to establish the kind of core values with the common Americans in the way that the Republican Party's actually successful doing, and the environmental group has been too attached to sort of an elitist, egalitarian, effete core group. What do you think of that? Do you think the environmental groups seem to do a better job of reaching out to the common American?

Bill Meadows: Well, you know, I wish they had talked with me, or with people on the Wilderness Society staff. I think that's part of the inadequacy of the article. It was not complete in terms of examining what is going on in place right now. I mean, for example, the Wilderness Society is working very closely with the ranching community and the hunting community in the Upper Green River basin to protect migratory routes for pronghorn antelope. We've worked with local communities, business, local people in the Rocky Mountain front to protect that from energy development fields. We are finding that people do care deeply about the places that are near them, and they are eager to work with environmental organizations, conservation groups, nationally and locally, in order to protect those places.

Colin Sullivan: What about reaching out to the Republican Party? Do you think that your group, specifically has done a good enough job reaching out to Republicans?

Bill Meadows: Oh, you know, we -- I wish we could do more. I think conservation is a bipartisan issue. It should not be liberal, conservative. It should not be Democrat, Republican. I spend a lot of time working with Republicans in the House and the Senate. Some of my best friends in the Senate and in the House are Republicans. They have the same strong conservation values that I do. Finding ways to express those can sometimes be difficult. We have an administration, and we have a leadership in Congress, both in the Senate and the House, that seems to be opposed to conservation values. That does not represent the views of American people. I think they're wrong, and we're trying to correct that.

Dan Berman: Well, you mentioned that you were working with conservation groups locally, working with ranchers, etc. Is that going to be the wave of the future -- to work with the local groups and to work with states and take the emphasis on lobbying the federal government?

Bill Meadows: Yeah, there's a multitude of approaches. All are going to be necessary. These are not either/or questions. We need to find ways in which we can work effectively with the administration. We need to find ways in which we challenge the administration. We need to find ways in which we're working with local conservation organizations, but also working with local business groups, and working with people that we have not traditionally had as allies. We're finding more and more support, though, for conservation values in place. So why not build this larger constituency. All politics is local, and when you are able to find ways in which people can be engaged in conservation protection at the local level, they communicate that to their elected representatives, whether they're Republicans or Democrats.

Dan Berman: Do you think, again, maybe that's the problem of what happened in the '80s and '90s that by not lobbying the local groups and cooperating with them, that there became the disconnect between your values and what's happened in Congress and the administration?

Bill Meadows: You know, I think these values have always been there, and we have not been organized in ways in which we have been able to integrate local and national conservation values effectively. I would suggest that the partisanship and the polarization of these issues is more the result of our opponents pushing back than the Wilderness Society and our allies pushing in any way. I think the values have been consistent for decades. We are now finding ways to express those values. We know that we need to express them in ways that affect public policy and also affect --

Colin Sullivan: Do you think that you're too often playing defense? It seems like you're playing a reaction game. You're reacting to ANWR legislation. You're reacting to ESA reform. You're reacting to NEPA reform. Do environmental groups need to do a better job of going on offense introducing new policies, introducing new legislation, rather than just reacting? Or is that the way you have to do it with the Bush administration in office?

Bill Meadows: You know, again, it's not either/or. There are places and policies that need to be protected. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of those places that truly needs our help to protect it. The majority of the American people believe that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a place that should be protected. So when the administration, or when leaders in Congress set that agenda and try to open the refuge for oil exploration, we're obviously going to push back on that. At the same time, we look for opportunities. You know, there are 24 wilderness coalitions throughout the country pushing wilderness legislation. We may have 12 wilderness bills in Congress this session. There are probably four that will actually, we think, will pass. We added almost a million acres of wilderness to the National Wilderness Preservation System in the last Congress. That's opportunity. It was done by bipartisan support, dealing with local people and national organizations.

Dan Berman: Well, quickly, you mentioned wilderness. Many of those, you know, some of those wilderness bills, especially the Lincoln County and Nevada bill had provisions for land sales, had provisions for recreations -- provisions that many of the local wilderness groups opposed. In fact, there was some language that even nullified a court ruling out there. I mean is that the bargain that you're going to have to make to kind of to sell off some federal lands in order to get to protect others?

Bill Meadows: No, Lincoln County was a unique proposition. We opposed much of that legislation. We're very, very pleased that we were able to add 768,000 acres of wilderness as part of that. And we applaud Senator Reid and other members of that delegation for leading on wilderness designation. But we also challenge some of the components of that. There are actually bad aspects of that bill that we oppose. That does not mean that we don't work on that legislation. We are working with congressional leaders. We are working with local people in Nevada. The wilderness groups in Nevada were very engaged in this legislation as it developed. They were raising questions about it, but also were supportive. We have similar opportunities, though, in other places, places like Idaho. There are two wilderness bills in Idaho where we have chance of passing legislation this year. There's some bargains there are a part of that process in order to bring support from local communities as well as the wilderness community to make that a positive --

Dan Berman: But aren't these bargains and are instead of putting ANWR in the budget the House Resources Committee's looking seriously at Endangered Species Act changes and NEPA changes, even the National Historical Policy Act, they've started to look at. Isn't this all a sign that the environmental movement has lost it's power on the Hill? I mean would the Republicans in 1970s, I mean they passed most of these things. Now you have to fight them on it.

Bill Meadows: There is a big change from 1970 to 2005. That's correct. But I would argue that our power is significant. In fact, one of the reasons that the opposition, the leadership in Congress and the administration are trying to change those laws is because they have been proven effective from a conservation standpoint, from an environmental standpoint. We've utilized that legislation in order to gain protections environmentally. Now you find an administration that is trying to weaken the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act. You know, everything you look at, they're trying to roll back, because they have been effective from a conservation standpoint, but they believe they have infringed on their corporate friends, and they have created problems that corporate America has resisted.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think -- we had RFK Jr. on the show not too long ago, who is an environmental attorney. One of his big complaints, he wrote a book recently where he says the press, especially the mainstream press, hasn't done a good enough job of covering environmental issues. What's your experience with that? Do you think that's part of the problem?

Bill Meadows: Well, I think that there a lot of other issues out there, and we compete for air time, and I'm pleased to be here and be with you and applaud you for bringing these issues before the American people. There are a number of newspapers who have environmental reporters that have an environmental beat. I read every day good news stories. I think good, effective presentations of the issues in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, the Denver papers. I think that there is mainstream attention to this. The concern I've got, mainstream media attention -- the concern I have is that the second-level papers don't have people assigned to these issues. And so we're not debating the issues appropriately at the local level. I think that's the real challenge for us.

Colin Sullivan: What about the networks? Yeah, what about the broadcasters? What about the networks? What do you feel about them?

Bill Meadows: Yeah.

Colin Sullivan: I mean if you looked at the news over the weekend, they spent all their time talking about a woman who, you know, didn't want to get married, so she went off to Las Vegas. I mean is that the kind of focus they should have?

Bill Meadows: No, I think the networks and the broadcast media have a tendency to go to the issue of the moment and, unless we have a bunch of controversy, it's not going to be covered. You know, it's sad. I wish that there'd been more coverage for the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. I mean this was a -- really a strong conservation story. It shows the value of the Endangered Species Act. It shows the value of protecting habitat for a species. This is a story that could have been a hook for a great environmental interest, and it just has not played out that way.

Dan Berman: Well, that was announced last Thursday. I mean don't you think there's time for groups like yourself to go out and make that case to inform all of your local friends that, "Hey, look, you know, we found a species that was thought extinct for 60 years. Now, you know, let's make it work for us."

Bill Meadows: Yeah, I think that's true. I think that there's an opportunity here, and I think that there are a number of organizations that will talk about that. Maybe we'll get some coverage. But it doesn't have the same resonance as somebody who's running away from her husband, you know, on the eve of a marriage. I mean this kind of controversy, this controversy of the moment seems to drive our broadcast media, and that's a shame. We don't have an opportunity to do really in-depth analysis. I mean, for example, I think there are number of programs that have dealt with issues deeply, and you can find them in some of the specials. And we need to encourage more coverage by environmental journalists of those issues.

Colin Sullivan: I'm also wondering if we could take a step back to the 2004 campaign. John Kerry didn't make environmental issues a big part of his campaign. Do you think that was a mistake? Do you think that, I mean it seemed like Bush, there was a weakness there when it came to the environment, and John Kerry did -- I think he mentioned the environment once. He mentioned New Source Review in one of the debates, and he actually called it something else. But what do you think about that? Do you think that they didn't go aggressively enough after Bush?

Bill Meadows: Well, I would say that neither candidate articulated the issues effectively. Now, I do know from -- I do know that John Kerry spoke about the environment frequently when he was on the campaign trail, and the press simply did not answer those questions. But it's -- you cannot expect the American people to pay as much attention to environmental policy in that election as they were to terrorism, the economy, the war in Iraq. And so all the questions that seemed to be directed to the candidates dealt with those issues. I think probably by a factor of 20 to 1, you would have questions about the economy or terrorism versus questions about environmental policy. I would like to say, though, that when you talk about environmental policy at the local level, we were able to see some remarkable results. We end up with Ken Salazar in Colorado, who ran on a platform of "For Water, Land, and People." When you're able to talk -- bring people into a discussion about the value of environmental conservation values, the importance of those in your life, you can win, and he proved that. And the same thing happened in local initiatives, place after place. Seventy-five percent of the bond initiatives taxing people to protect open space and land passed in this country. I think there's a real support for conservation at the local level. It's a shame that that does not get played out on the national stage as effectively as it should.

Dan Berman: Do you think the problem with the national stage, then, is because it's partisan, it's Republican versus Democrat, as opposed to on the local level, while it's still obviously partisan elections it's in issues that intimately affect those communities.

Bill Meadows: Well, I think that's part of it, but I believe most of the problem is that the environmental policy and conservation values are simply not discussed as often as the crisis of the moment, war, terrorism, the economy. Things that are shown to affect peoples' lives on a daily basis. I think one of the challenges that Shellenberger and Nordhaus present is how do you begin to talk about environmental issues and conservation issues in ways that show the direct relationship with people's lives? When you do that at the local level, you can see it. It's hard to have an in-depth conversation about climate change, for example.

Dan Berman: So how do you do that? How do you get the public's attention? Do you need something like a disaster to get people to focus on this?

Bill Meadows: You know, I think things like the vote in the House and Senate on Thursday night that will allow, potentially allow for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. That's the kind of message coming from national policymakers that raises the rancor of the American people. The amount of -- the number of people who have contacted us in response to that vote expressing their anger, disappointment, pleading with us to do something. I mean it's just remarkable. And so when something that controversial happens at the national level, it motivates people to respond.

Dan Berman: But isn't that too late for you?

Bill Meadows: No, I mean this is a -- this issue is not -- the debate on this issue is not over. This was simply a budge resolution. The House and Senate have to come back and pass a budget. We still have an opportunity to challenge in that process, and there are also other options that we're looking at as well.

Colin Sullivan: Do you really think -- you really think you have an opportunity to stop ANWR still? It seems to me that they just have to pass the reconciliation language, and it's done.

Bill Meadows: Oh, absolutely. I mean the American people are clear on this. The number of people who are aware of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is remarkable. Sixty percent have some awareness. It's incredible to have that kind of an awareness. And then the number of people who support the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a very, very strong majority. You know, the votes in the House and the Senate were very close, and there are a number of people who voted to approve the budget who are on record as opposing any kind of exploration in the refuge. So, yeah, we think we have a chance to --

Colin Sullivan: You still need to pick off a couple of votes in the Senate. Do you have anybody that you're targeting?

Bill Meadows: Two in the House, three in the Senate. Well, we're, you know, we're looking. We're talking to virtually everybody, and we want to be able to make certain that we're securing the people who are -- have been our friends and have been with us in the past, and there's some people who voted for the budget, yet have voted to approve this budget -- voted for protecting the Arctic the past, but voted for this budget who we'll go back and talk to. Sure, we'll have those conversations.

Dan Berman: If we can jump across the Hill for a bit, back to the House Resources Committee where they've established a task force to examine the National Environmental Policy Act. They have six months to have field hearings, make recommendations, and obviously NEPA's been called the Magna Carta of environmental laws and all that. What would be the implications if they went ahead and made changes to the law some of the reviews and kind of streamline the process in order to get things moving?

Bill Meadows: Well, you know, this is very troubling, and it is totally out of step with mainstream America. I mean most Americans want to have good science. They want to have opportunity to examine alternatives. They want to be able to participate in decisions. And what is being proposed here is going to obviate all of that. It's going to limit the amount of science. It's going to limit the amount of study that's done for alternatives. We're not going to have as many choices to look at if they were successful. I honestly believe the American people will speak out about that, and this is, ultimately, not going to be -- they will not do the kind of reform that they're proposing. There's too many people. This is the -- you know, this is the hallmark of environmental policy. This was one of the first, most important baselines for all environmental policy work. And, you know, when you eliminate the need to do the kind of alternative reviews, you limit the amount of information that people have in order to make informed decisions. That's wrong.

Dan Berman: Well, but do you really need to be studying 10 different alternatives? For example Congressman Pombo inserted a provision on wind power and renewables in the energy bill last week, and his argument was, "Look, you know, for, you know, a wind plant, you're either going to build it or you're not." You know, why do you need to study eight or 10 different alternatives to just take different -- take a lot more time that aren't going to be used?

Bill Meadows: Well, there are other parts of that study. I mean there's the size, there's the placement, there's the location, there's the support system that go -- infrastructure that goes along with that, where the road's going to be built, is it going to infringe of view shed or water quality issues? There are all sorts of ramifications. And if you don't do the study, you end up making decisions that you regret. And we're not asking for 10 alternatives. You know, look at four, look at build it, look at not build it, and then look at the alternatives in between that have a more environmentally sensitive design perhaps.

Colin Sullivan: One last question. We're out of time. Gale Norton was on this show, I believe it aired Monday. Where I asked her, there was a big Post article last week about Bureau of Land Management oil and gas drilling permits on public lands out west. Basically BLM has issued far too many permits than producers can ever live up to. Gale Norton's response to that was, "Well, that's standard practice. It makes sense to have more permits out there in the pipeline than people can actually produce." What's your response to that? Do you think that's sort of -- what's that interpretation of federal statute?

Bill Meadows: Well, you know, 88 percent of the public land is available for leasing for natural gas and 85 percent for oil. There are very few places that the Wilderness Society and our sister organizations are trying to protect for their conservation values. We think those are important. We think it is wrong to lease 35 million acres of land and only have 12 million in production. Last year, there's 6,000 permits that were processed, but only 12,000 -- 1,200 wells in production. I mean that doesn't -- for the year, new wells for the year. I mean that doesn't make sense to us. Why do you keep leasing places that are, in fact, have great conservation values, and then you're letting all these other places that had previously been leased go fallow. We don't think that the Department of Interior is paying the right kind of attention to protecting the conservation values that's part of their responsibility. We're not opposed to oil and gas exploration on public land. In fact, we support it in several places. We believe that's part of our responsibility as a good citizen, but we recognize you don't have to drill everywhere. You don't have to develop everyplace. There are certain places that need to be protected, and that's what we argue for.

Colin Sullivan: OK, Bill Meadows, thanks for being here.

Bill Meadows: Thank you, Colin. Thank you, Dan.

Colin Sullivan: Have to come back. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Till then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV. Thanks.

[End of Audio]

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