Keeping the Spirit of Earthday Alive in the 21st Century

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

The environment has improved markedly since the first Earth Day in 1970. As proof, since 1996, the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) in San Francisco has published an annual "Index of Leading Environmental Indicators." The 2001 Index shows that since 1970, aggregate emission of air pollutants measured by the Environmental Protection Agency decreased 64 percent and that the percentage of Americans living in counties that meet federal clean air standards has risen from under 50 percent in 1988 to more than 80 percent in 1996.

In addition, PRI points out that the loss of wetlands to development and agriculture has steadily declined from 400,000 acres of wetlands lost on average annually in the mid-1950s to less than 50,000 acres lost each year by the mid-1990s. And due to a combination of public and private wetland restoration efforts, the U.S. may currently be experiencing a net gain in wetlands. For instance, the Wetlands Reserve Program alone has restored as much as 210,000 acres of wetlands in some years.

PRI's Index also shows that according to the EPA, the amount of toxic chemicals released, measured against a 1988 baseline, has declined by 45 percent.

President Bush is quickly demonstrating that he has a firm grasp on the kinds of policies necessary to continue environmental progress well into the 21st century. For instance, as a former governor, President Bush recognizes that federal legislation often unintentionally hampers environmental progress.

President Bush has called for an end to the "death tax" as one way to aid land preservation efforts. Often, family farms are sold to housing developers when a farmer dies. His heirs, facing a huge tax bill, sell the farm for subdivisions. Ending the death tax would allow those who inherit land to keep the family farm intact.

In addition, Bush has called for limiting lawsuits by environmental lobbyist. As a means to halt the use of large areas of private and public property, environmentalists regularly sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to force it to list species as endangered or designate critical habitat under the endangered species act. These lawsuits often force the FWS to make listing and habitat decisions before quality science is available to support the decision. In the process, the FWS uses scarce resources to answer these lawsuits. Bush would amend the act to limit the funds that the FWS could spend on such lawsuits.

President Bush also supports legislation to speed the clean up of "brownfields" -- once-productive commercial sites now sitting abandoned due to the suspicion that they contain toxic waste and carry the burden of Superfund liability. Superfund's current liability system serves only to increase the incomes of lawyers since 30-60 percent of Superfund costs go to lawyers fees and other transaction costs. This may suggest why trial lawyers have fought tooth and nail to oppose common-sense changes to Superfund's liability scheme. Bush supports brownfields legislation that protect developers and banks that wish to voluntarily redevelop brownfields from Superfund liability as long as their clean-up efforts meet standards set by federally approved state programs.

Continuing environmental improvement in the 21st century will require the federal government to adopt reforms that treat the private sector as allies in the effort to solve environmental problems, that recognize that Washington bureaucrats don't have all of the answers, and that are sensitive to the fact that most environmental problems are local in cause and effect, thus they call for local solutions. Luckily the Bush Administration understands this.