Commentary: Business And The Greens Share Common Ground

It's hard to imagine two Presidential administrations further apart on issues of the environment and public lands than those of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In his final days in office, Clinton infuriated development advocates in the West by effectively banning logging on 60 million acres of national forest--an area bigger than all the national parks combined. Now, Bush is horrifying environmentalists by reaffirming his campaign promise to permit oil and gas drilling in Alaska's pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Environmentalists see a battle of green vs. greenbacks. Their opponents like to cite a bawdy T-shirt slogan: "If two kids can have sex in the backseat of a car, why does the spotted owl need 50,000 acres?"

But despite the vitriol, some common ground exists between the two camps. Away from the hot lights and the sound bites, there are people on both sides who are discovering ways to balance the priorities of the economy and the environment by harnessing market forces in creative ways. While progress is being made on many fronts, from acid rain to suburban sprawl, some of the most interesting ideas deal with stewardship of public lands--issue No. 1 in the wrangle over Gale Norton's nomination as Interior Secretary.

FAIR SHAKE. Sure, there are still wild-eyed enviro-purists like the violent Earth Liberation Front. But many of the biggest environmental groups, such as the Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense, prefer coexistence, understanding that heavy-handed government control breeds resentment and evasion among businesses. There are better ways to protect the planet.

Environmentalists, for instance, have traditionally disliked cattle because they tend to destroy vegetation and erode stream banks. But in New Mexico, the Nature Conservancy sold the immense, 500-square-mile Gray Ranch to an organization that welcomes grazing. The ranch serves as a "grass bank" for neighboring ranchers, who graze their cattle there so they can let their own grounds rest and recover. In Colorado and Montana, the Conservancy has worked with ranchers to promote grass-fed cattle raised in a way that's easy on the land. Says Jim Petterson, its director of public affairs: "We recognize that there is a human element to the landscape we're trying to conserve. In a lot of cases, people have done a pretty good job."

Businesses, too, are learning to respect the environment and public lands--if only because tough cleanup laws and the weight of public opinion leave them no choice. Norton, Bush's pro-business nominee at Interior, has come under fire for favoring more self-policing by industry. But her idea resembles Project XL, an emissions-control program developed by Clinton's own Environmental Protection Agency. Under it, companies set up detailed, but flexible, environmental-management systems. While much of the decision-making is left to corporations themselves, it's not as if they can ignore their duties: Companies caught cheating risk heavy fines.

MARKETABLE QUOTAS. And even though Norton has been a lawyer for polluters, she may not turn out to be the single-minded despoiler that many environmentalists fear she is. Terry L. Anderson, a conservative Montana economist who recommended Norton to the Bush team, expects her and other Bush appointees to use markets in place of fiats wherever possible. Many of the concepts are even supported by mainstream environmental economists. A few examples: Set sellable quotas on fish catches to prevent overfishing in places such as the Gulf of Mexico. Allow environmentalists to stop overgrazing by buying grazing leases from ranchers. Let national parks charge more user fees and reinvest the money to keep overuse from degrading their natural wonders.

Environmentalists and the Bush Administration are unlikely to link arms and sing campfire songs together anytime soon. Nor does there seem to be much room for agreement on lightning-rod issues like logging bans or drilling in the Arctic refuge. Still, disagreements shouldn't prevent advances in other areas. On many issues, the two sides aren't so far apart.

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