Democrats' green agenda gets big boost
For years, the state's environmental and energy-conservation activists have hit a brick wall in Congress in the form of Rep. Richard Pombo, the outspoken...
Seattle Times staff reporters
For years, the state's environmental and energy-conservation activists have hit a brick wall in Congress in the form of Rep. Richard Pombo, the outspoken Republican from Stockton, Calif.
Pombo was swept from office Tuesday in an election that put Democrats in control of Congress and left environmentalists optimistic they'll see more money for parks, progress on Puget Sound cleanup, and creation of a new wilderness area in Snohomish County.
The Democrats' victory in the House promotes Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, and other Washington Democrats to key positions in the new Congress.
"It's nothing less than a sea change," said Dicks, who will become chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department, National Parks and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Pombo, as chairman of the House Resources Committee, has been vilified by environmentalists and praised by those who think government regulations go too far.
He's tried to weaken the Endangered Species Act, proposed selling off parts of national parks and forests for mining and single-handedly blocked the proposed Wild Sky Wilderness area in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest.
With Democrats now in power, Dicks outlined an ambitious environmental agenda. He said he would use the power of the purse in Appropriations to help clean up Puget Sound, provide more money for Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks and force the EPA to enforce pollution standards.
Dicks also wants to hold hearings on the impact of global warming, particularly on Puget Sound fish and wildlife.
"The state is one of the big winners in this election," said Heather Weiner, a longtime D.C. environmental lobbyist now based in Seattle. "It's all about the chairmanships and all about appropriations, all about the money."
Not everyone shares the Democrats' joy — or their prognosis.
"Rep. Richard Pombo's defeat was clearly the biggest loss for those of us who support protecting property rights, reforming the Endangered Species Act, and lowering energy prices by increasing domestic energy production," Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., business think tank, told the National Review Online.
He also said that although the environmental and energy agenda will be set by Democrats, "the ideological makeup of the House and the Senate on these issues has not changed as much as the magnitude of Republican losses would suggest," with mostly moderate Democrats winning.
"This means, most notably, that the prospects for enacting global-warming legislation in the next Congress have not been significantly increased," Ebell told National Review.
Pombo's defeat was engineered in part by Rodger Schlickeisen, a Seattle native and president of Defenders of Wildlife, who's an old friend of Dicks'.
Schlickeisen decided to target Pombo last year. In doing so, Schlickeisen defied the odds and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which wrote off Democrat Jerry McNerney's race against Pombo this summer as unwinnable.
Pombo is the first sitting chairman to lose a House seat since 1994.
Schlickeisen, who was at the University of Washington with Dicks, led the unsuccessful effort to return gray wolves to Olympic National Park in the late 1990s.
Defenders of Wildlife and Schlickeisen named Pombo "enemy No. 1," and set up a tiny office in Pombo's central California district. They recruited the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and the Humane Society — a group known for its ability to mobilize voters.
Defenders of Wildlife and its allies put more than $1 million into the race.
The coalition's message was that Pombo was in the pocket of special interests, such as the oil industry and polluting corporations.
With Pombo out, Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is in line to chair the House Resources Committee. His votes this year earned him a 92 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters.
Weiner, the environmental lobbyist, said she expects Dicks and Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, who is on the Resources Committee, to try to increase spending for maintenance and rangers at national parks.
Dicks' interest in Puget Sound cleanup will be welcomed by Gov. Christine Gregoire, who has declared the Sound a top priority. A commission she appointed has said cleanup could cost more than $12 billion.
Cleanup has taken on new urgency among Washington policymakers, driven by growing concern about the impact of toxic chemicals, population growth and climate change, and the endangerment of two iconic species, chinook salmon and orcas.
Oxygen levels in Hood Canal are so low they've triggered three major fish kills in the past five years, most recently in September.
Dicks and Inslee serve on the state commission that is considering a cleanup effort on the scale of the push to revive Chesapeake Bay or the Florida Everglades.
Meanwhile, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, said he'll try to push the Wild Sky Wilderness bill through as soon as Democratic chairmen take over in January.
Larsen proposed Wild Sky in 2002, hoping to turn 106,000 acres of Cascades forestland into wilderness.
The bill passed the GOP-led Senate, but Pombo blocked it in the House several times. He flew over the proposed wilderness in 2005 and argued to a group of local Republicans that parts of the land didn't qualify as wilderness because they contained roads.
"Chairman Pombo put up a lot of resistance to it, even after we compromised," Larsen said.
In the Senate, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell could become chair of the Commerce Committee's Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee and move up the ranks on the Energy Committee.
One of the first priorities of Democrats and the environmental groups is rolling back billions in subsidies to big energy corporations. Cantwell has said the subsidies undercut investment in wind, solar and alternative energies.
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or email@example.com
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