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Carl Hiaasen
For Bush, there's just too much wilderness

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Last summer, President Bush appeared on a TV fishing show to chat about how much he loves the great outdoors. He said the same thing in a penetrating interview with Field and Stream magazine. He even posed with bird hunters in rural Minnesota, waxing poetic about the wetlands.

It was all part of an intense White House effort to reassure the so-called hook-and-bullet crowd that Bush was one of them, and not a stooge for marauding oil and energy conglomerates.

Whether or not the president has fooled the hunters and fishermen won't be known until Nov. 2, but he hasn't fooled everybody. His radical plunder-and-pillage environmental policy is changing America's landscape in ways that have distressed even some of the party faithful.

The Bush-Cheney view of wilderness is simple: There's too much of it. So, for nearly four years, the administration has tirelessly worked to open hundreds of thousands of acres on public lands to the oil, gas and timber companies.

Under pressure from the White House, the Bureau of Land Management is issuing more and more drilling permits, especially in the Rocky Mountain states. Oil and natural gas operations are primed to take off from Montana to New Mexico, intruding on some of the country's most scenic and pristine ecosystems.

The nonchalance with which Bush stripped away federal protections throughout the West has drawn flak from constituencies that are usually Republican - outfitters, sportsmen, even farmers and ranchers.

For months, the administration has been trying to make peace, dispatching high-ranking officials to convince the locals that rampant drilling and logging won't harm the wildlife, foul the rivers and ruin tourism.

Selling this president as a nature lover hasn't been easy, considering his pathetic record.

Since Bush took office, only 529,604 acres have been set aside for conservation under the Wilderness Act. By contrast, more than 10.6 million acres were preserved during the Reagan years.

It doesn't enhance Bush's credibility that he so shamelessly packed his administration with big shots from the oil and gas industry, starting with the vice president, Diamond Dick Cheney. The vice president still refuses to reveal who served on his energy-policy panel, but it's hardly a mystery. Just check out the prices at the gas pump.

As unprecedented as the current assault on the environment is, it hasn't made much of a ripple during the election campaign. Pollsters say that voters are more worried about Iraq, terrorism, jobs and health care.

Yet back in Wyoming, Cheney's home state, ranchers are watching as contaminated water destroys crop and grazing land, courtesy of the natural-gas companies. The extraction process pumps 60 million gallons of wastewater daily from methane-rich coal beds to surface ponds and other storage areas in the Powder River Basin.

The ranchers, most of whom were Bush voters in 2000, are understandably disillusioned. These aren't folks who can be snidely dismissed as liberal tree huggers; they're die-hard conservatives who are getting shafted while the energy tycoons get richer.

Ironically, Florida has been spared a similar fate because the president's brother is governor, and because the state's electoral votes are crucial to the president's reelection hopes.

Offshore drilling is passionately opposed by most Floridians, and Jeb Bush couldn't have won in 1998 without speaking out strongly against it.

If George W. gets reelected, all bets are off after Jeb leaves office two years down the road. When Big Business pushes, this president caves.

Nothing rings so hollow than to hear him invoke the natural glories of the Everglades. Until last fall, the administration was drafting a plan to roll back federal jurisdiction over protected wetlands, making it easier to drain and develop them.

When the news leaked, hunting and fishing groups protested that the plan would destroy large tracts of irreplaceable wildlife habitat. The White House backed off quickly, and President Bush later announced he actually wanted to expand national wetlands.

You don't have to love the wilderness to be worried about the next four years. If your kids breathe the air or drink the water, you've got a major stake in this election.

Regulations intended to protect the public from mercury emissions, arsenic, carbon monoxide and other toxic wastes have been continually targeted by the administration, with varying success. The president has made it plain that he thinks that pollution laws are just too darn burdensome on Big Business.

Senator James Jeffords, the Republican-turned-independent, says that the Bush years will go down as "the greatest disaster for public health and the environment in the history of the United States." The administration says that it's seeking to strike a balance between a healthy economy and a healthy ecology. Unfortunately, we have neither.

Bush will be a friend of the hunter until a timber company wants to clear-cut the forest. He'll be a friend of the fisherman until a mining company wants to use the stream as a latrine.

Then he'll look the other way and be a friend to those who wrote the largest campaign checks.

Carl Hiaasen can be contacted by e-mail at
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