There is no doubt that the Obama White House had to hit the ground running full speed to confront the unprecedented mess left behind by the Bush terms. From the moment of his election, Obama's entire energy was focused on dealing with economic crises. Think of the economy like a freighter shipwrecked on the rocks, changing captain and crews on the fly; now employing every rapid tool to get the ship off the rocks and to shore before it sinks. With top officers so preoccupied, filling key soldier slots became a lesser order of priority; in this case, environment and sub-cabinet posts.
A great deal of damage done to environmental policy during the Bush terms occurred through the staffing of ideologues in key sub-cabinet positions at CEQ, EPA, and the Department of Interior. Far from being careless, the Bush personnel department was careful to draw industry insiders and lobbyists to key positions. By that standard, the Bush White House was effective. All it took was a president largely indifferent to federal authority with respect to the environment to ensure that the purpose of government agencies to protect the air, water, and natural resources of the nation was hobbled from within.
Not to put too fine a point on it: the Clinton terms were hardly friendly to stronger federal environmental policy. When there was progress, it was mainly in reaction to right-wing assaults from well funded industries. Clinton was terminally careful not to offend big industry interests--like Big Sugar--, especially after the 1994 mid-term elections when Republicans were ascendant. After 8 years in in the White House, it was only in the final nine months of his second term that President Clinton let the environmental dogs out; the roadless rule in western wilderness, the Utah national monument and other big strokes. In all, very disappointing.
To be sure, what was to come under Bush was worse. The worst damage was inflicted at the sub-cabinet level positions where, in some cases, polluters were invited to write Bush White House policies. In Florida, for instance, during the overlapping state and federal Bush administrations, the EPA and US Army Corps of Engineers permitting functions withered to burnt crisps. During this time, within environmental agencies, the main job criteria was allegiance to an anti-regulatory, free market enthusiasm that manifested as a litmus-test orthodoxy; the same that applied to recruitment within the US Department of Justice.
When Obama was elected and, then, rushed to the control deck of the US economy, I wondered whether change we could believe in would pan out and have waited, specifically for replacing those key positions at the sub-cabinet level. The news so far is not so good.
This fear is sharpened by yesterday's news from Craig Pittman, of the St. Pete Times: "New Army undersecretary wiping out wetlands for dual-golf-course development". Pittman is the co-author of "Paving Paradise: Florida's vanishing wetlands and the failure of no-net loss". It is my favorite book of 2009. Buy it this summer. Here is Pittman's story. No further comment is needed, unless you would like to write your own thoughts to the White House and Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama's chief of staff.
New Army undersecretary approved wiping out wetlands for dual-golf-course development
Posted on June 11, 2009 10:51 a.m.
By Craig Pittman
Although during the election he promised change, President Obama has been stocking his administration with former Clintonites. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since it gives you a clear idea of what to expect from this administration.
Take the man the president nominated this week to be the Undersecretary of the Army, Joseph Westphal. Westphal previously served as Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, meaning he was the civilian head of the Army Corps of Engineers, from 1998 until 2001. Now he'll be the No. 2 man, the boss over the boss of the Corps.
During the Clinton Administration, Westphal helped shepherd the proposed restoration of the Everglades through Congress. But it's what he did on the other side of the state that caught our attention in "Paving Paradise."
A company called the Vineyards Development Corporation wanted to build a new subdivision called Naples Reserve on 691 acres of land in Collier County next to Picayune Strand State Forest. The company proposed building more than 550 homes and two 18-hole golf courses on its land, which would destroy 109 acres of cypress swamp, freshwater marsh, and wet prairie that formed the headwaters of the primary tributary to Rookery Bay National Estuary Reserve.
The Corps had no problem with the permit, finding there would be no secondary impacts to the state forest or Rookery Bay. Why? Because of the “extensive review of this project that resulted in a mitigation plan that addresses these concerns.” In other words, the mitigation justified the destruction.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed. The mitigation consisted of creating two acres of wetlands on the site and nine acres elsewhere, as well as preserving hundreds of acres of existing wetlands on the site and nearby. That meant there would be a net loss of 98 acres of wetlands, which wildlife service officials deemed unacceptable.
So the wildlife agency appealed the permit all the way up to the Pentagon, to Westphal. And he shot them down.
As we wrote in our book, Westphal's 2001 letter in response said, in effect: Those wetlands aren’t worth saving. They’re too full of exotic vegetation to really worry about. The mitigation is fine. And that overly specific project purpose is okay too, right down to the two, count 'em, two 18-hole golf courses.
“The Corps must accept basic project principles from the applicant in establishing its project purpose,” Westphal wrote. “In this case, these principles included the need in the marketplace for two regulation golf courses, mid-priced dwellings and the location in Collier County, Florida.”
Wildlife officials were stunned. In the years since, they have never elevated another wetlands permit to the Pentagon again.
Incidentally, the marketplace apparently did NOT exist for two golf courses. The developers have since applied for permission to drop one of the golf courses and instead double the number of homes to 1,154."
Obama is reaching back to Clinton-era credentials; a job qualification that doesn't sit well with many environmentalists. If the idea is to have people who know "how to get things done", they didn't do such a good job the first time around.
It is clear that Obama's interest in environmental policies are on the large scale-- tied to energy and job growth, for example. The problem: he may have made a big mistake by entrusting the filling of agencies to staff, without carefully asserting that he wanted appointees whose background ground was based on their ability to change the culture of ingrained, moribund agencies and the marginalization of science that had permanently altered their respective missions.