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Kerry And The Environment

John Kerry has announced his environmental plan, and overall I give it high marks. It has a forward-looking tone, keeping the Bush-bashing to a minimum. And he denies (though perhaps not as vigorously as he could) the simplistic premise that the success of the environment and the economy are mutually exclusive.

Now I shall nitpick. His first of six points is a re-invigoration of the cleanup of local toxic sites (such as those treated under the Superfund program). His sub-points here are good, emphasizing the need for increased federal funding and the promotion of green spaces like parks. However, one important point is missing: the community. While he refers to the highest-priority sites as "Environmental Empowerment Zones," the overall thrust of his plan is a government-led top-down approach, in which cleanup is something that we do for affected communities, rather than with them. My own experiences in Palmerton suggest that there's a real danger in government programs coming in already knowing what needs to be done for a community. And even if the government is ultimately right in its analysis, the process of community involvement is still important. For example, the "Neighbor Helping Neighbor" lawn restoration program in Palmerton had benefits (in terms of reinforcing civil society and social relationships) that went beyond just getting grass growing in people's yards, and that would not accrue if we had simply hired some outside contractor to redo everyone's lawn. I have a suspicion that lack of community involvement is a major problem with the Superfund program. In doing some preliminary research for my job this semester, I was surprised to discover that only 71 sites had COmmunity Advisory Groups. Certainly there may be some sites where cleanup is so straightforward that no community input is needed, but I remain suspicious of how low that number is.

Point two is, again, good on the whole. I am especially pleased that his sub-points include:
1. Reinvest royalties obtained from extracting resources from public lands back into protecting our lands and special places; ...

3. Put new teeth into requirements that private companies and individuals who lease public lands return the land to its original state after completing energy development, grazing, or timber operations; ...

7. Modernize our mining laws and provide a fair return to the American people for mining operations on public lands.

I hope that sub-point 7 means that mining will be subject to the same sorts of restoration requirements (perhaps including posting a pre-development restoration bond so that if the company goes bottom-up, the country isn't stuck with the cleanup bill). I would also hope that the economic concerns woven in here mean that the government will stop subsidizing the overproduction of lumber on public lands.

Nevertheless, there is one big point that Kerry completely misses: fire. Catastrophic wildfires such as we've seen in the west the past few years (though this summer we dodged the bullet), as well as the unhealthy forests and rangelands that result from too much fire suppression, are one of the top threats to both our environment and the people that live and work in it. Much of the criticism of Bush's environmental policy has centered on the "Healthy Forests Initiative," which is ostensibly meant to reduce fire danger. Yet Kerry does not mention wildfire anywhere in his environmental plan. In his list of top ten environmental insults he makes "Healthy Forests" number five. Yet he focuses entirely on the way the plan will sell out our environment to timber companies. That's true, but as Bush's apologists remind us, we do need to address the issue of fire. It's not just a smokescreen cooked up to hide the logging giveaway, the way Bush's erroneous claims about environmental litigation are. Kerry needs a substantive policy on how we can change course from decades of fire suppression. I would suggest that a sensible plan would include changes in land use (such as limits on backcountry logging and zoning restrictions on development in fire-prone areas), the use of prescribed and natural burns, some mechanical thinning in buffer zones around settled areas, and public education on how fire works and what can be done about it.


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