The Golden State's Fading Greens

Mark Murray, director of Californians Against Waste, was anxious to make the rounds in Sacramento after Republicans swept the election last November. But just minutes after receiving a warm welcome from freshman Assemblyman Bruce Thompson, Murray, an advocate for recycling, was abruptly shown the door. Why? The assemblyman had mistaken Californians Against Waste for an antitax group. "I'm not with you," Thompson then told the bewildered Murray. "I'm with business."

These are dark days for environmentalists. And nowhere is that more true than in California, a state almost synonymous with environmentalism. Since establishing Yosemite Valley as the nation's first state park in 1864, Californians have been at the forefront of a national movement that spawned sweeping federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act. But the Republican Revolution in Congress has sparked a war on federal environmental laws, and an equally fierce battle is raging in Sacramento. The upshot: Like welfare and Medicaid, environmental policy will shift away from federal mandate and into the hands of cost-conscious state legislators.

If any state is in a position to manage its own environmental affairs, it should be California. For decades, Washington followed Sacramento's lead in adopting tough laws regulating everything from toxic waste to offshore drilling. And creation of the powerful California Air Resources Board is forcing Detroit to develop electric cars, to debut in 1998.

Such policies, however, are increasingly under attack. With California's prolonged economic slump, the Golden State is in a heated debate over whether rigid environmental protection is compatible with economic growth and job creation. In the current budget, state park funding has been slashed 25%. More cuts are sure to follow.

Leading the charge is Governor Pete Wilson. Anxious to score points in his Presidential bid, he has quickly backpedaled on earlier campaign promises to "secure the spirituality of Big Sur and safeguard cathedrals of redwoods." He now proposes gutting California's Endangered Species Act by compensating private property owners for economic loss and by requiring legislative approval of each new bird or fish listed. And he's reconsidering his earlier support of the electric car mandate.

UNTHINKABLE. Wilson won't get much opposition from a new crop of Republican legislators. With strong support from the oil, farming, and development industries, several have launched an assault on more than a dozen environmental laws. Their plans range from loosening pesticide regulations to exempting some timber companies from logging restrictions. "We're a hairsbreadth from losing these fights," worries Sierra Club lobbyist John White.

Not long ago, such dire predictions would have been unthinkable. Now, local political support for environmentalism by both the GOP and some Democrats is fading. That's why many Californians fret that giving more power to the states may be just another way of saying less environmental spending and more pollution.