Who's Protecting California's Environment?
Gray Davis promised to ensure that "wetlands are preserved, rivers are clean and all old-growth trees are spared from the lumberjack's ax." Most environmentalists, weary after four consecutive Republican administrations in Sacramento, were eager to hear those words and to believe that once in the governor's office, Davis would bring renewed commitment to solve the environmental problems of California. But with only minor exceptions, this has not come about.
San Francisco Chronicle November 14, 1999
by DAN HAMBURG
Gray Davis, as lieutenant governor, promised on March 15, 1998, in a major environmental address to the Planning and Conservation League Foundation, to ensure that "wetlands are preserved, rivers are clean and all old-growth trees are spared from the lumberjack's ax." Most environmentalists, weary after four consecutive Republican administrations in Sacramento, were eager to hear those words and to believe that once in the governor's office, Davis would bring renewed commitment to solve the environmental problems of California. But with only minor exceptions, this has not come about.
Davis started out on the right foot with several solid appointments including Mary Nichols as Resources Secretary, Tom Hannigan as Director of Water Resources and Rusty Arieas as Director of Parks & Recreation. These people had credentials with the mainstream environmental community and it was hoped that they would bring significant positive changes to their respective departments. What wasn't figured on was that Governor Davis, a renowned micro-manager, would keep them on very short leashes.
For example, one of Nichols's first official acts as Resources Secretary was to withdraw a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Wilson administration to block implementation of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. This 1992 law, steered through Congress by Martinez Democrat George Miller and then-Sen. Bill Bradley aimed to create a restorative balance between agricultural and other uses of fresh water flowing through the San Francisco Bay and delta. In a move that shocked environmentalists, Davis ordered Nichols to rescind her action and then not-too-privately called her on the carpet for acting without his specific instruction.
Davis's penchant for micro-management is being blamed for his slowness in filling scores of key positions in his new administration. The result is that many state regulatory agencies continue to function as if this were the third administration of Pete Wilson. Last week, Davis was reproached for his failure in articles that ran in both The Chronicle and the LA Times.
"Many of the enforcement decisions are still being made by Wilson holdovers," said Bill Magavern of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles-based organization that focuses on environmental protection and nuclear safety. Magavern complained that polluters are still being protected, not public health. The regional water quality control board responsible for the sensitive Lake Tahoe area completely ceased to function when Davis failed to appoint new members. Other boards are functioning only because members have agreed to serve beyond the expiration dates of their terms.
In March, Davis took what appeared to be a strong step when he imposed a December 31, 2002 deadline for the phase-out of the gasoline additive MTBE that the governor called "a significant threat to public health." At the same time, he asked refiners to supply MTBE-free gasoline to service stations in Lake Tahoe "as soon as possible" to appease a region up in arms over losing nearly half of its drinking water to tainted wells. Six months later 11 of 15 Tahoe stations were still selling MTBE-laced fuel. Meanwhile, the governor pressured Sen. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto) into dropping the 2002 deadline from his bill. Critics charged that Davis is "flip flopping on his promise to protect California's environment, embarrassing the legislature, and harming his own credibility."
One of Gray Davis's selling points to environmentalists when he ran for governor was his opposition, as a member of the State Lands Commission, to a proposed radioactive waste dump in the Mojave Desert at Ward Valley. As governor, Davis has been agonizingly slow in reversing the pro-Ward Valley stance of the Wilson administration. When the project seemed to implode over the summer, Davis appointed a waste industry-packed Nuclear Waste Advisory Group to find a replacement site. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has raised concerns about the group's composition, and has questioned the need to locate any new nuclear waste facility in California. One watchdog group claims that Davis has still not given up on Ward Valley despite overwhelming public opposition that culminated in a 103-day occupation by environmentalists and local Indian tribes last year.
Recently, Davis inexplicably vetoed the Healthy Schools Act, a bill that would have required the state to study problems with air quality in portable classrooms. There are currently over 86,500 of these portables across the state. Studies have shown that portables can expose children to toxic chemicals at unacceptably high levels. The bill also called for better notification of pesticide spraying around schools and the training of school personnel in environmental health standards. The governor's veto is especially hard to understand in light of recent surveys that have identified high levels of toxic substances in California schools, both in portables and traditional classrooms. In the governor's hometown of Los Angeles, a $200 million high school sits half-built on top of an abandoned oilfield while experts try to determine the extent to which toxic and explosive gases are leeching upward.
The Board of Forestry (BOF) has long been a focal point for environmentalists concerned about unsustainable logging practices in California. Ultimately, it's the BOF that has to address problems like overharvesting, cutting on steep slopes and in unstable areas, disruption of watersheds and water quality. Failure to address these issues adequately has led to ongoing struggles, including civil disobedience, in places like Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County and Jackson State Forest in Mendocino County. Many have charged that the BOF does a poor job of enforcing existing forest practice rules and has abdicated its responsibility to prevent practices that lead to property degradation, violations of clean water standards, and the listing of plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under Gray Davis, the Board remains a quagmire, unable to take even modest steps toward reform.
On July 7, timber industry executives feted Davis at a reception in the Shasta County town of Anderson, headquarters of timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries. The event was held on the same day that his administration proposed stricter regulations for timber harvesting on private lands in order to protect rivers and wildlife. Curiously, Davis claimed to be unaware of the new rules, even though they had just been issued by two of his own cabinet officials! The reception was just one of several half-policy, half-fundraising sessions with industry that would be a Davis trademark if Bill Clinton hadn't already perfected the genre. According to a recent article in Time magazine extolling him as "the most fearless governor in America," Davis has already raised $7 million for his 2002 campaign war chest, an amount that dwarfs previous first-year efforts by any sitting governor anywhere on the planet.
Whether Davis's fund-raising is skewing his policy judgment will ultimately be for the voters to decide. But it's clear that timber industry prerogatives are being well tended under the guidance of this administration. The question is whether these interests are the same as those of the state as a whole. Last month, the BOF again delayed a vote on new rules to protect coho salmon habitat, rules most conservation and fisheries organizations already felt were too weak. The Board's lack of will caused Joe Blum, a representative of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), to warn that a listing of steelhead trout may be necessary. Such listing has been delayed since 1997 (the year the coho was officially listed) under a memorandum of agreement signed by state and federal officials. Now NMFS is again threatening to use the "blunt instrument" of ESA listing in order to gain the attention of California politicians, beginning with Gray Davis. Listing of steelhead could help restore the coho as well, but would also devastate the sport fisheries of northern California including some relatively healthy rivers such as the Trinity and the Smith.
To his credit, Davis didn't veto two measures on the March 2000 ballot that could have significant benefit to the environment. A $1.97 billion water bond would finance improvements in flood protection, water quality, levees and conservation. The governor also signed a $2.1 billion park bond act that would begin to address the severe state of dilapidation in our state parks, beaches and historical sites. However, to call allowing these measures on the ballot a "bold step," as Davis did at his signing ceremony is disingenuous if not plain deceptive. If there is to be a bold step taken it will be by the state's taxpayers, not its governor.
No serious environmentalist would call this governor an innovator. In the recent Time puff piece, Davis is praised for his advances in gun control, HMO reform and education. There is no mention of the environment whatsoever. Most of the environmental bills he has signed, such as Carole Migden's (D-SF) bill to allow water quality control boards to sanction repeat offenders, have sat around the capital for years waiting for a Democrat governor to sign them. In fact, Gray Davis has proposed no bold steps to deal with the imminent collision of the state's human population with its battered natural resource base.
Most environmentalists have thus far been reluctant to criticize the governor publicly. After all, given the rapacious tilt of California's Republican politicians on environmental issues, what choice is there? But at least a few think it's time to take off the gloves. Ted Nordhaus, executive director of Next Generation, an environmental consultancy based in Oakland, is one.
"There is increasing trepidation among environmentalists that Davis isn't very serious about protecting the state's environment," says Nordhaus. He recently surveyed leaders in the mainstream environmental community throughout California and found that there was a general consensus that Davis put good people in place but that "at the larger policy level, there hasn't been much in the way of new initiatives."
Kathy Bailey, state Forest Conservation Chair for the Sierra Club is blunt about the administration's handling of endangered species. "From what we have seen in the past few months, it has become increasingly clear that the Davis administration is not committed to saving coastal salmon (coho, chinook, and steelhead) from extinction in California. We're facing a crisis of extinction and the Davis administration is doing nothing."
The governor needs to be taken to task more vigorously by the environmental community. The stakes are too high to wait. Another three, or possibly seven years of Davis drift will certainly make our challenges that much more difficult to meet. Some environmentalists are proposing ways to go around the governor, such as appealing directly to sympathetic ears within industry. While commendable, this tactic seems unlikely to yield a high level of success. After all, business runs on the principle of the bottom line, not the more subjective criterion of the public good. That criterion is supposed to be the province, and indeed the purpose of government.
A turnaround in California's approach to its environment would be a powerful signal to the rest of country and the world. It would also be the best gift we could give ourselves and future generations of Californians. Based on the evidence of nearly a year, we will have to make it happen without a great deal of support, let alone leadership, from Governor Gray Davis.
Dan Hamburg is a former Mendocino County supervisor and member of Congress. He was the Green Party candidate for governor of California in 1998. Currently, he serves as executive director of Voice of the Environment, a Bolinas-based nonprofit. Dan can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.