To former President Bill Clinton, environmentalists were just another Democratic-party voting bloc to be charmed, manipulated, or seduced, when it suited him. He stocked his Cabinet with greens, but took a strong personal interest in the agenda only when it was politically useful. He also found clever ways to cut Congress out of the picture when he did act, hogging the accolades for himself and minimizing the need to compromise or overcome resistance. He was slick about it, in other words. No surprise there.
A classic example of this was when Clinton used executive powers granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish a series of new national monuments across the west. The first series of designations came in a September surprise that helped cement the support of green groups during the run-up to Clinton’s 1996 reelection bid.
The gambit, which was hatched in secret without consultations with Congress or the states affected, stirred local resentment and generated lawsuits. So unpopular was one designation in southern Utah, in fact, that Clinton made the announcement in Arizona. Many westerners and Republicans claimed at the time — and maintain to this day — that Clinton misused the Antiquities Act in designating the monuments. The century-old act was intended to give presidents the power to protect Indian ruins, artifacts and other small historical or scientific sites across the west, and it had seldom before been used on such a massive scale, to impose a new layer of bureaucratic control over millions of acres of federal land. It remains a sore subject with many westerners.
Back in 2001, newly elected “red state” President George W. Bush, aware of western concerns, backed a congressional effort to rein in a president’s power to dramatically alter the status of federal lands without congressional involvement. So imagine the sense of betrayal among Republicans and westerners when Bush on June 15 pulled a Clinton — using the Antiquities Act to establish the 140,000 square mile Northwestern Hawaiian Island Marine National Monument. That’s an area larger than 46 of the 50 states, and more than seven times larger than all other national marine sanctuaries combined.
“Within the boundaries of the monument, we will prohibit unauthorized passage of ships; we will prohibit unauthorized recreational or commercial activity; we will prohibit any resource extraction or dumping of waste, and over a five-year period, we will phase out commercial fishing, as well,” Bush said, claiming the designation as an example of what he calls “cooperative conservation.” But this isn’t cooperative conservation; it’s command-and-control conservation of the worse sort, inviting Washington to dictate virtually all activities in an area 100-times larger than Yosemite National Park.
Much of the area already was in the process of being designated a national marine sanctuary and was under no serious threat. But Bush shortcut the five-year process and declared the area a national monument, to be administered by the department of Interior. In so doing, he also pulled the rug out from under erstwhile allies who decried such uses of the Antiquities Act as abuses of executive power.
Why do this but for crass political and legacy-seeking reasons? President Bush knows, as Clinton did, that the easiest way to set liberal pundits and editorial pages aglow is to pose as the second coming of Teddy Roosevelt. And it seems to have worked, at least in the short run. An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer said Bush now joins the company of Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton for “grand acts of conservation.” The San Francisco Chronicle said Bush pulled “a stunner.” The St. Petersburg Times dubbed it an “act of environmental heroism.”
Others would call it Clintonesque, hypocritical, given Bush’s past opposition to such misuses of executive power. “I think it is totally inappropriate, unlawful, wrong and not consistent with his alleged philosophy,” Perry Pendley told Greenwire. Pendley’s Mountain States Legal Foundation unsuccessfully sued to overturn Clinton’s monument designations.
Those reportedly angered by Bush’s move include officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who saw five years of work establishing a marine sanctuary go down the drain. And commercial fishers in Hawaii are naturally concerned, fearing that their access to traditional fishing areas will be curtailed or denied.
“If NOAA had gone forward with the sanctuary designation, the agency would have made a proposal for fishing regulations, taken public comment, then issued final regulations within the next year,” Greenwire reported. “The monument designation allowed Bush to institute his own management plans with the stroke of a pen.”
Bush is fond of imposing his will with a stroke of the pen — except, that is, when it comes to using his veto pen to curb the obscene orgy of federal spending that’s gone on during his watch. His executive edicts have frequently proven harmful to civil liberties, the rule of law, and the public’s trust in transparent and above-board government. This most recent pen-stroke only contributes to a monumental credibility problem.
—Sean Paige is the editorial-page editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette.