United States Divided on Earth Day 2004

WASHINGTON, DC, April 22, 2004 (ENS) - Earth Day in a Presidential election year is a polarized Earth Day in the United States, with the Bush administration and the Democratic challenger each claiming the best environmental stewardship program.

President George W. Bush celebrated Earth Day in Wells, Maine, where he visited with volunteers helping protect a wetland.

Figures released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that, for the first time, the United States has reversed the annual net loss of wetlands on farms. The United States was losing almost 500,000 acres of wetlands per year 30 years ago, but today, that loss is down. Overall, agriculture officials said, "we are nearing" the national goal of "no net loss" of wetlands reaffirmed by the President in 2002.

The President announced a new national goal, to create, improve, and protect at least three million wetland acres over the next five years in order to increase overall wetland acres and quality.


President George W. Bush (Photo courtesy The White House)
Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, took aim at the new wetlands goal, saying "President Bush picked wetlands as his Earth Day topic for blatantly political reasons: he's had an earful from hunters and anglers that an important part of his base is pretty outraged at his environmental record."

But said Clapp, "the President is making big promises that his administration is already undermining. The wetlands protection guidance his the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives to the states actually encourages destruction of wetlands." A January 2003 joint memorandum from the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to exclude "isolated," areas from the protection of the Clean Water Act, a term Clapp is "undefined" and "without scientific meaning."

The White House is letting Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality James Connaughton handle most questions about his policies for Earth Day. Under constant fire from conservationists and scientists for his environmental policies. In an Internet forum Tuesday, Connaughton answered a critic of the Bush environmental policies who charged that, "Mr. Bush has bent over backwards to roll back pollution laws," and asked, " Do you fight for the people or the corporations that pollute?"

"The centerpiece of President Bush's environmental policies is to ensure they are making the quality of their environment and the communities where they live better," Connaughton replied.

Connaughton said the administration is "bringing us to a new era of cleaner air quality by implementing tough new health based standards announced just last week by EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and by moving forward with a plan that will finally control pollution from the nation's old coal power plants - without having to resort to legions of lawyers, regulators, and consultants in endless conflict."

He praised the administration's funding of brownfields cleanups, and said conditions in the national parks are "improving." Referring to the clearing of national forest lands to limit wildfires, Connaughton said the administration is "restoring the health of our nation's public forests."


James Connaughton chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The administration is "dedicating billions of dollars to significantly reducing the runoff of pollution from farms that can contribute to impacts on the oceans and coastal areas," Connaughton said.

New regulations imposed by the Bush administration will "dramatically reduce" the sulfur in diesel fuel, and "we are cutting the pollution from every major category of diesel engine sources for the first time," he said.

Democratic Presidential challenger John Kerry is celebrating Earth Day in President Bush's home state of Texas. He will be in Houston at a 12:30 pm rally at the University of Houston where the theme is the environmental stakes in the 2004 election.

"A healthy environment is critical to the strength of our economy and our nation," Kerry said. "Under President Bush, we have seen a devastating deterioration not only in our economy but in our public health and safety. It does not have to be this way. I believe that the economy and our environment go hand-in-hand and that through strong environmental protections we are a stronger nation."


John Kerry has represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate since 1984. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Kerry issued a new report earlier this week outlining the ways in which President Bush's "polluter-friendly environmental agenda has put the health and safety of Americans across the country at serious risk."

The report, available at http://www.johnkerry.com, finds that the President has "sided with polluters over the quality of life of the American people" time after time.

"Unlike the Bush-Cheney administration, where special interests rule and the environment suffers," the candidate said, "a Kerry administration will protect our environment by balancing strong protections with smart strategies for economic growth."

The National Council of Churches took aim at the Bush administration's clean air policies today with a full page ad in the "New York Times." The Council wants the President to leave in place provisions of the Clean Air Act that require coal power plants to install emissions limiting equipment when generating capacity is increased. The administration plans to allow the plants to increase up to 20 percent of total capacity without installing such equipment.

The National Council of Churches' 36 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox member denominations include more than 50 million persons in 140,000 local congregations across the country, an important constituency for the President, who has made federal support for "faith-based" activities a central feature of his administration.

Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget in the Interior Department, is demonstrating the Bush administration's priorities with an Earth Day visit to view repairs taking place at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in downtown St. Louis on the Mississippi River.


The Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial which commemorates the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean 1803-1806 and European settlement of the West. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
This is an urban national park consisting of the Gateway Arch, the Museum of Westward Expansion, and the Old Courthouse. The Bush administration is spending $8.2 million this year on painting, an alarm system and accessibility lift, diorama repair and roof replacement on the Old Courthouse.

In Scarlett's view the administration is addressing the maintenance backlog at the country's national parks. "In the four budgets of this administration, nearly $3.9 billion to date has been proposed to address deferred maintenance in parks. The funds provided are achieving tangible results such as those at this park," she said.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who heads the department that manages one out of every five acres of land in the United States and provides the resources for nearly one-third of the nation's energy, has not mentioned Earth Day this year.

But across the country, organizations large and small are issuing Earth Day warnings to alert the public that the Bush administration is destroying previously protected areas.

William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society wrote Wednesday, "In the past 100 days, these are just a few of the assaults made on our nation's public lands:


Ponderosa pine forest on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (Photo courtesy University of Montana, College of Forestry and Conservation)
Earth Day offers the chance for us to stop and reflect on this erosion of the public trust," Meadows wrote. "For generations, Americans have steadfastly protected the unequaled places that make this country special. We will be a poorer nation if we toss the treasures of a lifetime aside for the manufactured pressures of the moment."

The founders of Earth Day 34 years ago are not forgotten. Former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, is being honored with a Distinguished Alumnus Award by the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Nelson founded Earth Day in 1970, and attracted the participation of nearly 20 million people that first year, making the event an instant success.

Denis Hayes was national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970. He now chairs the international Earth Day Network. Back in January when the Democratic primaries had yet to be fought and won by Kerry, Hayes endorsed the Massachusetts senator for the Democratic nomination saying, " In 2004, the future of America very much depends upon defeating George W. Bush and electing someone with the capacity for greatness."


Denis Hayes was national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970. He now chairs the international Earth Day Network. (Photo courtesy GEF)
"Kerry has been my friend for 35 years, and his wife Teresa a close friend for 15 years," wrote Hayes in the Earth Day Network's "Grist" magazine. "I've campaigned for him. He's organized huge Earth Day events for me. We've dined and drank late, and I've stayed at his home. I've had the chance to assess Kerry's character over the years. What I'm trying to say is that I know this guy, and I trust him."

The Earth Day Network promotes environmental awareness and stewardship through environmental education, citizen action and organizing, capacity building, coordinated global campaigns, private sector engagement and annual Earth Day celebrations. The Earth Day Network works in 184 countries with more than 8,000 members, helping to build alliances, facilitate information exchange and collaboration.

As Earth Day unfolds in 2004, it will be marked by a brand new organization. The first annual Artivist Film Festival, to be held at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles from April 22 through 27 addresses social, global, political, animal rights and environmental issues through film, visual arts and music.

Greenpeace is one of four non-profits being honored at the film festival for efforts to protect and promote activism in the United States. Other honorees are The Humane Society, Witness Forum and the Child Welfare League of America Forum.

Many warnings are being sounded this Earth Day, but none so strong as that contained in a new book by James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and former chair of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter Administration.


Gus Speth is dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. (Photo courtesy Yale)
In "Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment," Speth writes, "Time is running out. We are on the verge of reaping an appalling deterioration of our natural assets. Only unprecedented action taken with a profound sense of urgency can forestall these consequences.”

A co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, and founder of the World Resources Institute in 1982, Speth headed the United Nations Development Programme from 1993 to 1999, when he came to Yale.

Surveying 10 major concerns, Speth says some progress has been made on reversing ozone depletion, stabilizing world population and curbing acid rain, but weak international environmental treaties and lack of U.S. leadership have failed to slow climate disruption, desertification, deforestation, extinction of species, freshwater shortages, fisheries depletion and the buildup of highly dangerous chemicals, despite the fact that these issues were brought forcefully to public attention a quarter-century ago.

“It has been said that people act out of love or fear - to realize a positive vision or to avoid disaster,” Speth says. “This volume focuses on the looming disaster and how to avoid it."


Until December 2003, EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt was governor of Utah. (Photo courtesy Earthjustice)
In the face of all this division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt is putting a united face on Earth Day 2004 in the United States.

Writes Leavitt in his Earth Day message, "Earth Day is a time to unite. The environment knows no boundaries. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water. We all cause pollution – every one of us. And working together, we can find the solutions and effect the changes needed to protect our planet."