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Today's debate will consider the following proposition: That it is better for the environment to have a Republican in the White House. Now I'm sure a lot of you out there started giggling as you read that statement. This must be a joke, right? Republican presidents are famous for believing that trees cause air pollution. For trying to change the definition of "wetlands" so the Everglades won't qualify. The creed of every Republican on the right side of the culture war insists that the only reason God created nature was so businessmen could make a profit by destroying it.

Democrats, however, are renowned for not being able to get through a day without hugging at least one tree. An environmentalist who did not vote Democratic would be haunted for the rest of his days by ghostly visions of spotted owls and fish festooned with tumors.

But one could rebut that point of view by suggesting that the environmental movement can accomplish more when it functions as an active, principled opposition than when it curls up in the lap of an administration that repeatedly sells it out.

Alexander Cockburn, writing in the Nation (August 23-30), accused the mainline environmental organizations of collapsing under pressure from the administration and endorsing a proposal that would end the controversy over logging in the Pacific Northwest by giving the logging industry everything it could ever dream of getting and then some.

At issue is Option Nine, a set of management choices for the forests that is currently the Clinton administration's official idea for how to save the spotted owl, the marbled murrelet, various populations of salmon, and the hundreds of other plants and animals dependent on the continued existence of old-growth forest. Calling Option Nine deeply flawed would be to praise it beyond its worth. It creates no inviolate reserves of old-growth forest beyond existing parks and wilderness areas. It opens up to immediate logging about 40 percent of the estimated five million acres of old-growth that still exist. It allows logging in the "forest matrix," a term that refers to forested lands that lie between two existing parks or wilderness areas. Cutting on that land would have the effect of making islands out of the protected old-growth forests. Option Nine allows the continued export of raw logs, eliminating jobs in the sawmills of the northwest. It allows logging in roadless watersheds and suggests a level of logging--1.2 billion board feet per year--that is unsustainable. It promises nothing in the way of reform of the Forest Service and its practices.

Existing law says the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management--who between them own all the federal timberland in the west--are required to provide for "viable" populations of native plants and animals. In other words, it is not enough to preserve tiny remnant populations of endangered species. You have to make management plans--which include logging plans--that will leave enough animals spread over a large enough range to ensure the long-term existence of the species. Under Option Nine several species of fish--including salmon--will have only about a 50 percent chance of survival over the long term.

I should explain that Option Nine came about because the Clinton administration didn't like options one through eight. Those were created by a committee headed by Forest Service biologist Jack Ward Thomas, the same man who produced the rescue plan for the spotted owl. Option One was the most preservation-oriented of the range of choices, and the higher numbers were increasingly tilted toward logging. Option Nine was invented by the administration, and its critics, who are numerous and generally convincing, say it is a political document and not a scientific document. It is designed to blunt the opposition to Clinton, to allow him to declare a just settlement of the conflict over the forests. With luck, its failings won't become apparent until after 1996.

Cockburn's piece in the Nation castigated the Washington offices of the mainline organizations for saying nice things about this gross sellout. He contrasted their response with the continuing opposition of the grass-roots groups in Washington and Oregon, the groups that first brought this issue to national attention. The apparent acceptance of Option Nine, says Cockburn, is "a classic posture of liberalism before power: exaggeration of the enemy's strength, belittling of one's own, preference for compromise rather than the protracted anxiety of struggle and possible defeat."

When I started looking into this matter, I found that the split between D.C. and the grass roots was not quite as (pardon the expression) clear-cut as Cockburn made it out to be. Groups like the Oregon Natural Resources Council are very strong in their opposition, but the national groups, in their specific criticisms of Option Nine, are almost as strong.

We are currently in the middle of a public-comment period that will allow all parties to register their objections. The national groups will be stating strong objections to the lack of inviolate reserves, to cutting in roadless watersheds, and other provisions of the plan.

Every writer I know has had the experience of submitting a story and being told by an editor that the story is really great, we just need to rewrite the lead, rework everything from the middle of page two through to the end, and then change the conclusion. But the story is really great.

This is how staff people at National Audubon and the Sierra Club talk about Option Nine. They are very careful to praise the administration for taking action even while they oppose every detail of that action. The definitive moment in this process will come after the public-comment period, when the administration makes a final proposal. When we know what that proposal contains and measure the reaction of the mainline organizations to it, we will know how much of Cockburn's criticism is justified.

But regardless of the specifics in this controversy, his blast at liberalism and at the D.C. types in the environmental movement has some undeniable merit. There is always conflict between grass-roots groups and people in the capital. The grass-roots defenders of the forests can freely, and accurately, attack Congressman Thomas Foley of Spokane as a tool of the timber interests. But the national staff is thinking about passing the Clean Water Act and reauthorizing the Clean Air Act, and they do not want to alienate the Speaker of the House.

But the election of Bill Clinton complicated this continuing problem. Former staff people from National Audubon, Sierra, the Wilderness Society, and other groups are now holding down high-level jobs in the Interior Department, the EPA, and other agencies. Environmental groups have been on the outs in Washington for the past 12 years, and now we have to start asking if they are a little too far in. All the new bureaucrats will be telling their former colleagues to back the administration, because if Clinton fails we may get President Dole in 1996.

That argument has some merit. The problem is that it may give us environmental organizations that are worrying about staying friendly with Foley not just because they want his support for the Clean Water Act, but also because the president needs his support on the budget, health-care reform, and dozens of other issues.

Clinton's low popular-vote totals weakened his administration even before he took office. If environmentalists start thinking of him as "our" president, if we join too closely with him, his weakness will become our weakness. We are probably stronger than he is, and we ought to lean on him whenever it's necessary. We have permanent interests, not permanent friends.

After ten years in this space I will be writing my last Field and Street column at the end of December. We are looking for a replacement, and in the interest of maintaining the generally populist tone of the column, we are opening up the job to all interested parties. If you would like to be the next Field and Street meister, drop a note to Mike Lenehan at the Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611. He will send you information on how to apply. This contest is open to all interested persons. You do not need to be a published writer.

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