Hanging by a Thread 

Sierra Club president calls Allard-Strickland race crucial to environment

click to enlarge Sierra Club president Jennifer Ferenstein
  • Sierra Club president Jennifer Ferenstein

By now, most voters have heard the hype: In an election where the entire national political power balance is at stake, every single vote will count.

But what, exactly, will it mean if Democrats or Republicans end up in control of Congress? Does it really make a difference?

Jennifer Ferenstein thinks so.

That's why the 37-year-old from Missoula, Mont., has been making visits to key congressional battleground states in recent weeks. As national president of the 740,000-member Sierra Club, Ferenstein wants to drive home the message that the outcome of a few races could have a major impact on environmental policy in years to come.

Last week, Ferenstein visited Colorado to speak with college students and local Sierra Club members about one of those races -- the too-close-to-call contest between incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Tom Strickland. The Sierra Club has endorsed Strickland, citing the League of Conservation Voters' rating of Allard as a member of the "Dirty Dozen" -- the 12 Senators with the worst environmental voting records.

The Independent interviewed Ferenstein during her stop in Colorado Springs.

Indy: During the 2000 campaign, environmentalists pretty much warned that the sky would fall if Bush were to become president. Have things turned out as bad as you predicted?

JF: Well, a lot of lousy, lousy, things have happened. The roadless rule, which was just about ready to take roadless areas and put them in some sort of permanent protection, that's been basically shelved by this administration. Trying to get some sort of regulation of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, trying to get a handle on the pollution in the park, that's been shelved by this administration.

I don't like to talk so much about Democrats vs. Republicans, because the Sierra Club is not a partisan organization -- we want the environment to be a nonpartisan issue. But the truth of it is, until Vermont Sen. [Jim] Jeffords made a switch in his affiliation [from Republican to Independent, giving Democrats a one-vote majority in the U.S. Senate], the balance of power was such that drilling in a place like the Arctic would have been very, very likely to happen. As soon as we saw that shift, that small but significant shift of power, then some things changed a bit [for the better].

If you look at everything from weakening existing environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, to de-funding for enforcement of existing laws, we've seen those start to become more and more prevalent in this administration. On the environment, it's a very thin thread that we're hanging by. So I think this is an incredibly important election for that reason.

It's hard to predict what will happen, but I'd say that the groundwork for a lot of bad things has been laid. If we're not careful, a lot of those bad things will come to fruition in the next few years or beyond, if we don't take a positive step this election cycle.

Indy: What does that mean -- that you have to have a Democratic majority in either the House or the Senate?

JF: We have to have a majority of people who care about the environment. The Sierra Club has endorsed, nationwide, 15 Republicans who have strong environmental records. We need to hold onto the environmental power that we currently have in the Senate, which is very slim, and hopefully retake that power on the House side.

Indy: The media, and perhaps voters, seem mostly preoccupied with the economy and Iraq. Does that make it harder to talk about the environment?

JF: I don't think so. In fact, the environment is this administration's Achilles' heel. From what I understand, the environment is basically polling about second of important issues to people. In the race between Allard and Strickland, there's been a lot of talk about it. Allard [boasts of] having a strong environmental record; he'll tell you it's the strongest environmental record of any Republican senator Colorado's ever had. But he has the lowest League of Conservation Voters career voting record on the environment of any, probably, senator you've ever had. He's got a 9-percent career record.

I think most candidates across the country are aware that the environment is an important issue. Some of them try to look green, and some of them really are green and act green, and it's our job to provide information to the public so that they can really decide if somebody looks green or is green, and hold people accountable once they're elected.

Indy: That said, does the preoccupation with the economy affect how you deliver your message?

JF: I don't think it changes how I do it. I've always talked about the importance of a vibrant and healthy environment to help the economy. Investing in renewables here in Colorado would jump-start your economy. The numbers that we have are that investing in renewables would create $2.5 billion in new capital investment for Colorado, $1.1 billion in additional revenues [and] 8,400 jobs in Colorado by 2010. I've always tried to draw the link between the environment and the economy, because I think it's a false and in some ways very disingenuous distinction or bifurcation to say, "jobs vs. the environment."

Indy: What, specifically, is at stake in the upcoming Congressional session?

JF: At some point there'll be a move to revisit drilling in the [Arctic National Wildlife] Refuge, for example. Sen. Allard has been clear that he would be in favor of that, and candidate Strickland says that he would not favor that. For whatever reason, whether you're an environmentalist or just looking at it from an economic perspective, the idea of drilling in a place like that for a six-month supply of oil that you wouldn't see in 10 years, really doesn't make sense.

That, and other issues related to energy -- how and when we're ever going to get to fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, or the Sierra Club's stated goal of 20 percent renewables by 2020.

There'll be an effort to revisit the Clean Air Act and potentially create bigger loopholes.

Indy: Though you've endorsed a handful of Republicans, Democrats overwhelmingly get your support. Doesn't that effectively make you an extension of the Democratic Party?

JF: Our goal is to get environmentally friendly people elected. Sometimes you have great Republicans or independents or Green people that you can support. We have a very strict set of standards for where and how we endorse, and they're based on true voting records, consistency, key votes, and also who's shown leadership. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, many in the Republican Party have moved away from what I think are really some core values of conservation and conservatism in a positive sense.

The reality is, when you look at the League of Conservation Voters records, there's a lot of good people in the Democratic Party, and there's a handful of good people in the Republican Party. We need to encourage those with lower records to move up, and we need to try to vote out of office those who are hostile towards the environment.


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