A clean record

Posted: Sep 03, 2003 12:00 AM
A lot of folks I know who have teen-age kids actually hire a housekeeper or cleaning company to do the dirty work around their homes. Not me. Nope – it seems immoral to pay another adult to clean up after healthy children. Although life would be a lot easier at the moment if we could come home to a magically clean house, in the end, I know I'd be teaching my kids to be irresponsible and lazy. Unfortunately, it seems too many folks have gotten used to someone else cleaning up after them.

In our home, the message is loud and clear: Clean up after yourself. Somehow, government hasn't gotten the message. When it comes to the environment, Big Brother wants to clean up – or attempt to – for everybody.

It hasn't been for lack of effort on the part of President Bush, whom the green left blasts regularly. He's "the worst environmental president ever," according to Greenpeace. Adds Buck Parker, executive director of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environment law firm: "What [the Bush administration] is doing makes the Reagan administration look innocent." And Mother Jones magazine says, "the Bush administration has been gutting key sections of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts ..." and has "crippled the Superfund program," which tends to toxic industrial waste.

But could there be another explanation? Could it be that President Bush simply has recognized some immutable truths about how to care for environment and is doing his level best to change the culture accordingly? Could it be he truly believes in stewardship of the environment, in folks cleaning up their own messes? Could it be he's discovered the best ideas don't always come from Washington? That the people closest to the problems often – well, usually – know best how to solve them?

Given his second opportunity in two years to appoint an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, President Bush again has turned to one of the nation's governors – this time, Utah's Michael Leavitt. It seems clear that, in doing so, President Bush is trying to demonstrate his commitment to the principle of federalism – that we should devolve all power we possibly can to the states.

Like President Bush, Gov. Leavitt believes in personal responsibility, in states doing what they can to solve their own environmental problems. "Stewardship is the watchword," says my good friend and Heritage Foundation colleague Becky Norton Dunlop, who should know. She served in the Interior Department during the Reagan administration and as Virginia's secretary of Natural Resources under then-Gov. George Allen. And she's the author of a book called "Clearing the Air," which shows how states can work with – rather than against – industries to curb pollution.

Gov. Leavitt seems to understand this roll-up-the-sleeves style.

Haze at the Grand Canyon? It was more than just an eyesore. It had begun to compromise the canyon's value as a tourist destination and the health of those who live nearby. And even though the canyon itself is in Arizona, the haze resulted from regional problems with air pollution.

So what did Gov. Leavitt do? Did he turn to Washington, throw up his hands and beg for top-down, command-and-control instructions? No. Recognizing the track record the federal government has had managing its own resources – hard-green activists have prevented even the minimal maintenance it would take to keep forests healthy, for instance – he knew better. He convened the Western Regional Air Partnership and reduced air pollution at the canyon to its lowest level in decades.

In a similar vein, he's done more to clean the water and air of Utah than any governor in recent times. Utah meets all federal air-quality standards now, and 73 percent of its streams measure up – far above the national average of 60. Having served as chairman of the National Governors Association and the Western Governors Association, he has earned the respect and support of his fellow governors.

Even so, it won't be smooth sailing for Gov. Leavitt, as President Bush can tell him from the various protests he encountered on his recent trip out west to promote his Healthy Forests Initiative. The top-down, let-the-feds-do-everything (which often means nothing) ethos is well-entrenched in the environmental movement. The governor will seem like a boat-rocker in the same tradition as the president he'll serve.

But it's a fight worth fighting. Dunlop says recent events, including the recent blackout that affected people from New York to Ohio, demonstrate the need for a balanced approach to energy supply and infrastructure. And she's right. We can't put our heads in the sand and confuse abject finger-pointing with love of the environment.

Indeed, we need to start thinking about these problems in new ways. People have to be part of the solution every time. People closest to the problem are those who will sacrifice the most to fix it. We all understand the principle of cleaning up our own messes. Government needs to help with this, not compromise it.