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St. Paul, Minn. — The second presidential debate in St. Louis offered a quick glimpse at President Bush and Sen. Kerry's environmental visions, but the two candidates' statements seemed to cancel each other out. On the one hand was the president's defense of his record.
"I guess you could say I'm a good steward of the land," he said. "The quality of the air is cleaner since I've been the president. Fewer water complaints since I've been the president. More land being restored since I've been the president."
On the other hand was Kerry's assertion that the president was playing word games.
"The Clear Skies bill that he just talked about," said Kerry, "it's one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky and slap it onto something -- like No Child Left Behind, but you leave millions of children behind. Here they're leaving the skies and the environment behind."
Air quality and water quality have been steadily improving for the last several decades, and that trend has continued during Bush's presidency. And it's also true that Bush has proposed substantially reducing power plant emissions of sulphur dioxide -- which contributes to acid rain, and mercury -- a known neurotoxin, by up to 70 percent by 2017.
Every year the president puts forward the administration's proposed budget, and they keep proposing cuts in all these programs. So how can they say they're for conservation, but every year keep trying to whittle away at the funding?
According to Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning National Center for Public Policy Research, the president's proposal -- enshrined in the Clear Skies initiative that Kerry mocked -- is actually a robust plan for healthier air.
"It's an immensely ambitious program," Cohen said. "And if you think about it, the emissions have been coming down substantially over the last 20 to 30 years, in any event. They are a pittance now compared to what they used to be. And they will be reduced even further."
But what the president doesn't mention -- and what Kerry points out -- is that simply following existing laws and regulations would reduce smoke stack pollutants more drastically and more quickly than the president's Clear Skies plan. Diana McKeown is with the Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota. She says it's important to keep the current, tougher framework intact.
"It's how much and by when," said McKeown. "People are seeing higher increases of asthma in children, and seeing more water quality issues because of mercury and other things."
McKeown says, with respect to mercury, she'd like to pursue a virtual elimination of man-made emissions. Kerry supports the tougher approach outlined in current law. But the president's supporters say that's unnecessary and unrealistic. They also say such an approach fails to consider the economic and employment costs of zero-tolerance for emissions.
On forest management, the Bush administration has championed its "Healthy Forests Initiative," which opens national forests to some logging activity in order to reduce wildfire risks. Activists say the program is a favor to timber interests, and its impact is likely to be felt mainly in western states.
The administration is also working to repeal a Clinton-era policy banning new roads in 58 million acres of national forests.
In Minnesota alone, that covers 62,000 acres in the Superior National Forest. Sarah Strommen of the Friends of the Boundary Waters says Bush's attempts to overturn the rule could undermine the area's pristine quality.
"We'll see those areas disappear, little by little," said Strommen. "We'll see them carved up by roads and timber sales. The reality is that there are so few of these intact forest areas left in the country, and it would be a shame to lose the few left that we have."
Kerry has defended the roadless rule, which was adopted by President Clinton just days before Bush took office. Terry Anderson, however, says the rule is too broad and restrictive. Anderson is the executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center, which favors "free-market solutions" to environmental problems. He says the blanket administrative rule denies local officials and forest managers the freedom to make decisions on the ground.
"There are some serious questions to be raised about whether we want to manage the national forests from the Oval Office at any point in the administration -- let alone the last few hours -- and whether we want the Oval Office to be dictating management policy, which is what this did," Anderson said.
President Bush has also called for a net gain in the nation's wetlands, a position reinforced by the recent announcement of a new 35,000 acre National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota. Interior Secretary Gale Norton says that project showcases the administration's commitment to reclaiming native habitat.
"This refuge is also an example of our continuing commitment to restoration of wetlands all over the United States," Norton said. "The president has committed to restore, enhance, and protect over three million acres of wetlands over the next five years."
But the wetland policy came only after hunters and anglers repudiated an earlier administration plan to cut back on federal wetlands protection.
Even the president's support for the Conservation Reserve Program is not without some criticisms. The CRP subsidizes farmers and ranchers who take portions of their land out of production, preventing soil erosion and reintroducing habitat for native species.
In August, during a stop in LeSueur, Bush called for $40 billion over the next decade for the CRP and other farm conservation measures. But Loni Kemp of the Minnesota Project says the president may be overstating his record.
"Every year the president puts forward the administration's proposed budget, and they keep proposing cuts in all these programs," Kemp said. "So how can they say they're for conservation, but every year keep trying to whittle away at the funding?"
Kerry, like the president, supports CRP and has promised to expand that and other programs.
Kerry's record in the Senate has been scored highly by the nation's major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, which earlier this month endorsed him. The group's executive director, Carl Pope, says that 96 percent of the time, Kerry has supported the Sierra Club's position.
"He is by far the environmental leader among all the candidates that we've ever had nominated by the Republican or the Democratic Party," said Pope. "He's got a much stronger voting record than Vice President Gore did in the U.S. Senate, and they served in the Senate for many of the same years."
That endorsement may not be welcome, however, by some who say it represents an outdated and extreme approach to environmental stewardship.
Anderson, the free-market champion, says Kerry's likely to apply a heavy-handed, regulatory approach to the environment. But even he says Bush has sometimes swung the pendulum in too far in the opposite direction, towards utilities, timber interests, and energy companies.