Ballot Box

Bush Goes Fishing

EVERETT, Wash.–Bush was overshadowed again this morning, not by the fast-fading “RATS” brouhaha, but by a thick bank of fog hanging over the Skykomish River, where he came to deliver a speech on the environment. Today, however, his campaign’s news management techniques were much more successful, and the candidate mostly escaped the shadow. Bush’s staff delayed his speech for an hour, during which time the fog cleared enough to make the backdrop greenery visible, rescuing the day’s chief photo-op. And after Bush was done speaking, they didn’t set him free to make any message-burying statements to the press.

The idea that the Pacific Northwest is “in play” in the election makes the campaign much more varied and picturesque than it would be otherwise. In the battleground states of the Midwest, the presidential candidates harp endlessly on mundane issues like jobs, the economy, education, and health care–at schools, union halls, and American Legion posts. In Florida, they debate Social Security and Medicare at retirement homes and hospitals. But in Washington and Oregon, presidential candidates argue about fish in front of gorgeous vistas. It makes for a nice change.

Though Bush has portrayed himself as a moderate, “different kind of Republican” on many issues, he takes an uncompromisingly conservative, pro-industry line on the environmental issues of the Northwest such as salmon preservation, logging, and the expansion of national parkland by the Clinton administration, which he opposes. But Bush also tries to make himself out to be a tree-hugger while he does this. Dressed in a regionally appropriate fleece jacket, he told an audience of 100 supporters gathered at a cattle farm that he loves to fish and that he wants an environment “as pristine as it can possibly be.” But the main point he made in his speech was that he is unalterably opposed to the idea of breaching the dams along the Snake and Columbia rivers. This scheme, which many environmentalists favor, would allow endangered species of salmon to swim upstream again but deny the region low-cost hydroelectric power and flood acres of farmland. Bush tried to smoke out his opponent on the issue, which Gore has so far ducked, by saying he wants to hold a “Salmon Summit.”

Bush’s alternative plan for saving salmon was supposed to be exemplified by the farm he was visiting. According to the governor, it is the site of a voluntary, cooperative effort to restore salmon runs. Bush noted that salmon had returned to the stretch of river after several decades of absence thanks to efforts to breed them on a pond on the property (with the help of $300,000 in state and federal money). To Bush, this illustrates a larger theme of his campaign: that he trusts the people more than he trusts rats–I mean bureaucrats to do what’s best for the environment, just as he trusts the people and not “Washington” to figure out how to spend their tax money. “If you own your own land, every day is Earth Day,” he said, repeating a favorite line.

Meeting separately with a smaller group of people involved in salmon restoration, Bush told a personal story to underscore this point. He described being visited on the 900-acre ranch he recently purchased outside Crawford, Texas, where he is now building a house. According to Bush, a federal official came to tell him that golden-cheeked warblers, an endangered species, might nest in cedar trees on the edges of his property. Bush said the bird had not yet been spotted on his property, but that he “agreed [not to chop down the cedar trees] after listening to the man.”

“I understand what it means to sort of cross the bounds of trust between landowners and the government,” Bush added. I believe he meant establish bonds of trust between landowners and the government.

Unfortunately, the idea that environmental protection can simply be a matter of voluntary compliance falls short of reality. One of the best illustrations of this comes from Texas, where Bush’s voluntary plan to reduce emissions from industrial plants that predate the Clean Air Act has yielded singularly unimpressive results. Indeed, Texas’s abysmal environmental record overall is an illustration of why voluntarism doesn’t work without the help of regulation. But for Bush, opposition to environmental laws appears to be a rare matter of ideological conviction.

By the end of Bush’s speech, the sky was clear enough that you could see across the river. It was a gorgeous view, marred somewhat by a gravel- and sand-mining operation on the opposite bank–the property, no doubt, of someone for whom every day is Earth Day.

Photograph of George W. Bush on Slate’s Table of Contents by Rick Wilking/Reuters.