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Published: Monday, 8/20/2001

Rocky Mountain photo-op

High up in the fastnesses of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, President George W. Bush spent some time talking about building character, helping out briefly on a trail-clearance project, and rehabilitating his image as an environmentalist.

There were a few sour notes to this happy chorus. Steve Smith, a regional director for the Sierra Club, did acknowledge that Mr. Bush has proposed spending $5 billion over the next five years to address maintenance backlogs in national parks, money which is sorely needed.

However, Mr. Smith said, that money did not compensate for the administration's decision to set aside a regulation by the Clinton administration to protect 60 million acres of national forests from logging and other development. “He's looking at public lands as a resource to be consumed, not a treasure to be preserved.” One of the demonstrators in the park carried a sign: “Drill in the Uninterrupted Wilderness of Bush's Mind.”

The President is on what he calls a “heartland tour,” carried on periodically from his Texas ranch where he is spending a month on what has been described as a working vacation. Other presidents have used their leisure travels to promote their agenda; there is nothing wrong with that. In this case the heartland may be described as those states that may be important in the next election - New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, for example, states that went for Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, in some cases by close margins.

It would be a miracle if the President were to experience a mountain-top revelation on the subject of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the GOP-controlled House of Representatives insisted on incorporating into the Bush energy bill.

Tom Ashbrook, a writer who worked on an oil exploration crew on the north coast of Alaska, recently recalled what a glorious experience it was, even though he was part of the advance guard of an industry that was about to change part of the Alaskan wilderness forever.

“There is a raw, deep-seated human joy in getting our hands on the world, need be damned,” he wrote. “We all know the urge to rush in, to grab, to touch. It whispers like an ancient reflex, even now.

“We surely should have grown beyond it, but have we? Can we? As Congress weighs the fragile borders of the Arctic National Widlife Refuge, looking for a few more months of oil, I wonder: Is there anything we won't finally touch?”

One wonders if Mr. Bush has ever analyzed his urge to drill for oil in that fashion. Would the question even occur to him? He might do well to camp out in the Rockies for a month, to ponder conservation ethics. But first he should banish all political handlers to the ranch near Waco or Washington.



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