Local issues take center stage in environmental debates

Published May 1, 2002

A tried and true political adage declares “all politics are local.” Those who doubt it need only look at the past year in environmental news to see the truth in the saying.

Citizens prevail in the Klamath River Basin

In the summer of 2001, local farmers in a relatively unknown corner of the country known as the Klamath River Basin brought the issue of Endangered Species Act abuses into the national consciousness with a Boston Tea Party-like civil protest over citizens’ water rights.

While abuses had occurred many times in many different places, the we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore protests of a single rural community set in motion a debate that may, with any luck, finally induce Congress to amend the most over-reaching aspects of the ESA. Prior to the grassroots protests launched by this single community of concerned citizens, national politicians were unwilling to tackle such a political hot potato as the ESA.

At the same time Klamath farmers initiated a groundswell of political action regarding salmon, suckers, and property earned by World War I veterans, local citizens in the Klamath Basin and elsewhere around the country began mounting successful legal challenges, one-by-one, against unsound science used to divest citizens of their property rights.

Through a citizen lawsuit, a federal district court in Oregon called attention to the fact that allegedly endangered salmon are nowhere near extinct or even threatened. Breed-and-release programs have introduced millions of “endangered” salmon into the wild; as a result, 2002 appears to be the most successful salmon run in decades.

After citizen challenges to federal Fish and Wildlife Service findings, the federal government called on the National Academy of Sciences to determine whether artificially restricting the flow of water from Klamath Lake was necessary to protect the endangered-but-not-really-endangered salmon. Citizen demands for sound science prevailed: The NAS reported denying water to area farmers actually harmed the salmon and suckerfish, rather than helping them.

Winning the West all over again

Grassroots success stories have not been limited to the Klamath region. Lawsuits by citizens across the American West, particularly in Arizona and Nevada, reaffirmed the right of common citizens to graze their cattle, maintain their roads, and use their property free of undue interference by over-reaching and scientifically unsound environmental laws.

In Utah, the state legislature responded to the radical environmentalist tactic of obstruction-by-litigation by empowering citizens to countersue activists who improperly file lawsuit after lawsuit to obstruct the legal use of property. Not only may citizens recover economic loss, court costs, and attorney fees, but the legislature set aside over $100,000 to retain an attorney to assist common citizens in their defense against environmental lawsuits.

The list of grassroots citizen success stories during the past year is impressive … but so also was the effort spent by environmental activists to shut down freedom, sound science, and property development.

In the American West, a vast majority of the land continues to be owned by the government. The use of this government-owned land is largely dictated by environmental activist groups, many of whom receive substantial federal taxpayer dollars to pressure the government to keep local citizens out of the land-use debate.

Environmental lawsuits are filed repeatedly and on a daily basis, not with the good-faith belief that the law is on the activists’ side, but with the pernicious motive of convincing private property owners it is not worth the time, effort, and legal cost to exercise their legal rights to their property.

From DC to your home state?

Even debates on national issues are ultimately being decided at the local level. The state of California, for example, has taken it upon itself to implement costly and unrealistic fuel efficiency standards for SUVs. Regardless of the outcome of the national fuel economy debate, automakers and auto workers across the country will be deeply hurt by the new California standards.

In Illinois and elsewhere across the country, radical environmentalists are introducing legislation to circumvent a U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that isolated ponds and seasonal swamps are not “navigable waters” subject to aggressive federal regulation. Who needs a favorable Supreme Court decision when you can sneak in unconstitutional property limitations through the back-door of a state legislature?

And, as we note on page 12 of this issue of Environment & Climate News, the American Planning Association has begun distributing to state and local legislators across the country a 1,450-page guidebook seeking to impose uniform “smart-growth” (read, “no-growth”) land-use policies on every local community in the country. The APA admits its target is “large yards, garages, new schools, safe streets, and a frontier-like sense of (suburban) promise.”

The group aims to stifle local decision-making and turn every local community into a mini-metropolis, opening hundreds of new fronts in the smart-growth battle Unable to muster federal authority for their authoritarian vision of how government should stifle individual property rights, the APA is mounting a focused, concerted effort to push its agenda through state and local legislatures.

The dangerous implications of state and local debates over such issues as uniform smart-growth policies cannot be overstated. A central tenet of so-called smart-growth policies is the eradication, or at least the marginalization, of privately owned automobiles. Fighting to block any new road-building and forcing citizens to cough up huge taxpayer subsidies for ineffective mass transit, smart-growth advocates would solve the national CAFE debate through the back door. If citizens can be forced to give up the freedom of their own automobiles through a variety of heavy-handed government programs, the debate over automobile fuel efficiency becomes entirely moot.

All politics are indeed local. And similarly, the most important national environmental issues are being decided at the grassroots level. The only way to ensure that sound science, open markets, and freedom are defended in ongoing national debates is to invest the time, resources, and commitment necessary to prevail at the grassroots level.