12/21/2006 - This holiday season, many would argue there's been more naughty than nice this year in Washington - particularly when it comes to protecting our nation's environment. But before uttering a collective "Bah, humbug," those of us who care about conservation might want to take another look under the tree. For we're apt to find a few unexpected gifts, delivered by some new and unlikely friends, whose support for sound stewardship was key to this year's accomplishments.It has taken Hurricane Katrina, melting of polar ice caps, drought and wildfires, and a popular movie by former Vice President Al Gore, but this year, the nation finally seems ready to tackle the inconvenient truth of global warming.
In August, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a measure establishing the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal in the country, requiring the state to reduce its emissions 25 percent by 2020.
Similarly, seven governors in the Northeast, tired of inaction at the federal level, agreed to a regional initiative that will create the nation's first-ever mandatory cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide.
In July, President Bush surprised many by designating the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument, creating the world's largest marine reserve.
The area, which covers 140,000 square miles of ocean, contains nearly 70 percent of the tropical coral reefs in the United States and is home to 7,000 species of terrestrial and marine life, including the last of the endangered Hawaiian monk seals. And, just before leaving town, Congress approved a bipartisan measure that takes some important steps toward preventing over-fishing in America's oceans, including strengthening the role of science in fishery management.
Wilderness - the gold standard for land protection - made a remarkable resurgence in 2006, enjoying a level of bipartisan support that rivals that which made possible the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. This year, Congress has passed legislation to designate more than one million acres of wilderness, including 273,000 acres along the northern California coastline and 558,000 acres in eastern Nevada.
Environmentalists also put on a defense display worthy of the best Bowl Championship Series match-up. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was once again thwarted, a proposal to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forestland to fund a rural schools program was sacked, while a federal court rebuked - at least temporarily - the forest service's attempt to jettison the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protects almost one-third of the nation's last undeveloped forests. Cornerstone conservation measures such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act will live to see another day, narrowly escaping a blitz by special interests to dismantle them.
But whether on offense or defense - environmentalists didn't go it alone. It's been a team effort, with a roster of diverse players who no longer believe they can sit on the sidelines. Farmers and ranchers, faced with years of severe drought, now are urging lawmakers to address global warming. Hunters and anglers who care about the loss of wildlife habitat particularly in the Rocky Mountain West are calling for more measured approaches to drilling and development.
The voices of Rotary and Sierra Club members are nearly indistinguishable when it comes to protection of wilderness and local landscapes. Prominent religious leaders can be heard from both the pulpit and podium seeking action on climate change and extolling the virtues of being sound stewards of God's resources. Indigenous peoples, understanding that conserving natural resources means preserving native culture, have re-emerged as important environmental allies, as they demonstrated in the establishment of a marine reserve in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
Washington may have some new cooks in the kitchen, but the recipe for success shouldn't change. Most agree that the 110th Congress will be a moderate one, filled with new members, elected by slim margins, who will gravitate toward advancing pragmatic, bipartisan solutions. Environmental issues will be no exception. Conservation will continue to be best served by careful selection of priorities, cooperative efforts and timely compromise.
Remembering this will go a long way toward ensuring that at least when it comes to conservation, Santa - not Scrooge - will be paying us a visit. And our children will receive a gift that is priceless - the opportunity to enjoy a healthy environment.
Jane Danowitz is a senior environment officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2005 Market St., Suite 1700, Philadelphia PA 19103; Web site: www.pewtrusts.org. This article was published in the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.