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California battling Bush on environmental concerns

By Don Thompson
Associated Press

Sunday, February 09, 2003 -

SACRAMENTO -- Across most of the West, conservative Republican officeholders are applauding the Bush administration's proposals to open federal land to more local control, new roads and additional logging in the name of fire prevention.

Not so in heavily Democratic California, where officials say the administration has repeatedly undermined the state's stricter environmental standards on everything from low-polluting automobiles to offshore oil drilling.

They were particularly incensed when the administration helped prevent oil drilling off the coast of Florida, but tried to block California's review of 36 offshore leases because, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said, "Florida opposes coastal drilling and California does not."

"Unfortunately, the Bush administration just doesn't understand California," said Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. "We believe you can have a strong economy and a clean environment. We refuse to sacrifice one for the other. We believe in protecting our magnificent coast, clean air, clean water and a sensible approach to protecting our forests."

Much of California's criticism echoes that of environmental groups that accuse the Bush administration of rolling back or proposing rollbacks of environmental rules, regulations and laws enacted by presidents as far back as Theodore Roosevelt.

"You name it: forests, wildlife, water, energy, wetlands," ticked off state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols. "It's an odd blend of wanting to defer to the states, but in reality we have less influence."

They say the administration is challenging decisions that previously had been left to the state, in what they call a perversion of the federalism usually championed by conservatives.

"Ironically, this was a president who ran on states' rights -- but it's states' rights unless they're different than what he wants," complained Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. She hosted a recent hearing of her Natural Resources Committee on the growing divide between California and the federal government.

The White House and other Western officials contend it is California that is out of sync, as the Bush administration tries to streamline regulations and find a balance between protecting the environment and the economy.

"There's a very deep divide between that rhetoric and the reality of what we've been doing," said James L. Connaughton. The chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality dismissed much of the criticism as "politics as usual."

Yet California officials are reflecting a more urban population and diversified economy than other Western states, which have long been dependent on resource extraction to drive their economies, other observers said.

Wyoming and Alaska are thus more appreciative of administration proposals to open federal land to oil and gas companies to promote energy independence. In Alaska and Utah, officials cheered an administration proposal last month that could open certain federal land to new roads sought by state and local governments.

Montana lawmakers are debating whether their state's environmental protections went too far in driving out mining and logging companies. And Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and South Dakota see value in Bush's Healthy Forests initiative after watching devastating wildfires sweep through tinder-dry forests last summer.

"I think most of the states in the Intermountain West disagree with California officials on a lot of things," said Jim Sims, executive director of the Golden, Colo.-based Western Business Roundtable. "I think there is broad and deep support across the West generally in the Bush administration's environmental policy."

Politics may play a role as well. Bush seems unlikely to win a re-election fight in California, but he needs to keep the votes of the other western states, which for the most part are Republican bastions.

Paul Beddoe, who oversees public lands and Western issues for the National Association of Counties, said rural Western counties were delighted that Bush's latest budget chops money for federal land acquisition while boosting payments to counties with federal land.

"All those little red counties that voted for George Bush couldn't believe what they were seeing," said Beddoe, referring to media maps showing Republican support in the last election. "This year, there's been a 180-degree turnaround."

California has long prided itself on leading the nation on environmental issues, and part of state officials' frustration is with what they say is Bush administration interference with that effort.

The federal government for the first time is siding with the automotive industry in opposing California's effort to raise fuel economy and air pollution standards with new requirements for zero-emissions vehicles. And California is among six states suing the administration for rolling back new energy efficiency standards for air conditioners and heat pumps.

"This state is no different than any other state in picking and choosing when they like federalism. It's whose ox is being gored, frankly," said Robin Rivett, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation who often intervenes in environmental decisions on behalf of private property owners. "I think the average Californian would welcome a return to balance and common sense."

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