Salmon or Parks -- Bush Record in Disputeby Lisa Stiffler & Matthew Craft
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - August 22, 2003
Environmentalists say campaign pledges unfulfilled
When George Bush, presidential candidate, visited the Skykomish River nearly three years ago, he promised to support the restoration of salmon and parks. And today, when he visits the Ice Harbor Dam in Eastern Washington, he is likely to tout the success of his environmental pledges.
Environmentalists aren't biting.
The president's critics say he hasn't spent the money promised and isn't implementing policies that will save the Northwest's endangered fish or restore neglected national parks. They accuse Bush of touring pretty settings and exaggerating some of his accomplishments to buoy an environmental track record they consider shameful.
His supporters challenge that view, saying Bush has done a lot to protect nature, including "huge progress" on park maintenance.
"There is nothing that the president can do to make those people happy," said Chris Vance, the state GOP chairman. "Salmon runs are in the past couple years some of the best ... on record."
While it would be nice for the president to be able to take credit for the bounty of fish, few people -- if any -- are willing to grant it.
There is widespread agreement that the impressive runs are the result of cooler ocean temperatures, which bring with them abundant, nourishing food for the salmon and drive south some of their most persistent predators. Besides, the salmon returning now were for the most part born before Bush was even sworn into office.
"His policies didn't really have anything to do with these fish," said Nathan Mantua, a research scientist with the University of Washington's Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
Bush's administrators acknowledge this, but they say the president has taken action to help restore salmon whose numbers had declined precipitously.
When Bush campaigned here almost three years ago, he swore to his love of fishing and pledged to spend $20 million on the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, which parcels out restoration money statewide.
He vowed not to breach Snake River dams in order to restore salmon runs, as some environmental groups have called for, instead emphasizing the importance of local efforts to save the region's endangered fish.
The dams harm fish by blocking their passage upstream or down. They can drop water levels, increasing the temperature and slowing water needed to help flush juvenile fish out to sea.
But the president isn't alone in his resistance to dam removal. In June, governors from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana decided to work on plans for salmon restoration without removing the four dams.
"The interest in this administration is not so much in stopping harmful actions," said Bob Lohn, northwest regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries, the agency responsible for overseeing salmon recovery. "But it's in taking the affirmative steps needed in recovery."
This approach is viewed as timid by many environmental groups. They are pushing to reconsider dam removal or, at least, to spill more water over them -- taking it from power production and irrigation.
Bush has fulfilled one promise made that day on the Skykomish. The Salmon Recovery Funding Board received more than $30 million in funding in 2001, slightly more last year and $27.5 million for this year.
But Bush's critics say there are funding gaps elsewhere.
The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the power produced by more than two dozen dams in the Northwest, is not spending what it should on salmon restoration projects, said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland.
The money funds projects such as stream restoration for spawning and bypasses around dams. It helps buy water permits that can boost stream flows.
The amount needed to fully fund these programs is $250 million, but the BPA is offering only $139 million, Hudson said.
The administration does get credit, namely from the tribes, for improvements in the hatchery program, including changes in management practices to reduce competition between wild and hatchery fish.
Bush's supporters say progress is also being made on restoring the national parks.
At his 2000 campaign stop on the Skykomish, Bush criticized President Clinton for neglecting the parks. He said they were crumbling. Roads and buildings had fallen apart. Sewage was leaking into rivers. Bush pledged that his "balanced budget will devote $5 billion over the next five years to repair and the maintenance of our national park system, as president."
That promise pleased the National Parks Conservation Association, which praised Bush as a presidential candidate. Bush invited the group to be part of the transition team at the Interior Department, the federal department that oversees national parks.
Ronald Tipton, a senior vice president with the association, said the thinking was that Bush's policies might be awful on most environmental issues, but at least he was good on parks.
"We worked, day in, day out, for two years with this administration," he said. The administration overruled the National Park Service by allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, and proposed weakening the Clean Air Act after talking during the campaign about cleaning up coal plants that pollute parks. That, Tipton said, is when his group came to a realization.
"This administration is trying to pull one over on the American people," he said. "This is the worst presidency we've ever seen when it comes to national parks policy."
The administration is, in fact, spending more on national parks per year than Clinton did, and it has contributed more money to fight the maintenance backlog than the Clinton administration.
But Bush has only spent $200 million to $300 million on fulfilling his five-year, $5 billion campaign pledge. The president and his staff have repeatedly claimed to be spending $2.9 billion in new maintenance projects, but the Park Service's own deputy director has acknowledged that most of this money is not for new projects.
Pressed by Sen. Craig Thomas, a Republican from Wyoming, Don Murphy, the Park Service's deputy director, said $200 million to $300 million of the $2.9 billion was new money for chipping away at the backlog. The only way $2.9 billion adds up is if you lump all new, old and routine maintenance and construction projects together.
"It's money that would have been appropriated if Mickey Mouse was president," said Craig Obey, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Just last week, Bush was accused of "not living up to your promises" of caring for national parks in a letter signed by 120 former park officials and sent to Bush and Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Among the charges, the letter accuses the administration of fiddling with numbers and taking "inappropriate credit" for tackling the maintenance backlog. Bill Briggle, the former deputy director of the Park Service who retired as superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park in 1999, was one of those who signed the letter.
Briggle said parks protection isn't a partisan issue.
Environmentalists have challenged the motivation behind Bush's Northwest visit and his choice of issues. Washington is one of seven states that, until today, he hadn't visited since taking office.
Bush's tour of the West Coast, Obey said, is meant to spruce up his environmental image.
"It's the playbook," Obey said, referring to a memorandum crafted by Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and strategist, meant to remodel the party's message. Luntz said the environment was one issue on which Bush was "most vulnerable."
The memo goes on to lay out a strategy for Republicans to win the "environmental communications battle" through softening language and dropping catch phrases. In one of its few policy recommendations, it tells the party to become "a champion" of national parks.
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