In a perfect world, President Bush would be a passionate waterfowl hunter with a conservation conscience that stretched as far as the prairie horizon. He would hunt ducks and geese in his home state of Texas and devise strategies on how to conserve wetlands and grasslands and the future of the sport.
In a perfect world, Mr. Bush's record on natural resource issues would rival another swashbuckling Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, whose passion for hunting and wildlife conservation is, even decades after his death, the stuff of legends.
Such a president, in such a perfect world, would be welcomed by hunter/conservationists from coast to coast. He would, in fact, get my vote in 2004.
But we don't live in a perfect world. Mr. Bush's vision for conserving natural resources is so visionless that it leaves me angry, frustrated and concerned for future generations. In less than four years we've learned this about Mr. Bush: He's no conservationist.
No issue illustrates this more glaringly than the current wetlands debate in our nation's capital. In early November a Bush administration official "leaked" to the Los Angles Times a copy of the administration's draft proposal on how wetlands would be defined for purposes of Clean Water Act regulations. The new rule would significantly narrow the regulatory scope of the Clean Water Act, stripping away protections for isolated wetlands and streams of federal pollution controls and opening them up to development.
Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that the new rule, if drafted by the administration, would leave hundreds of miles of streams in the southwest and elsewhere open to development, thus hurting trout, salmon and their spawning habitats. Instead, let's focus on wetlands, specifically on how the new rule would impact duck populations and, by extension, duck hunting.
The administration's draft rule proposal has spread through conservation and environmental circles like wildfire -- and for good reason. Waterfowl managers believe the rule would result in shorter duck hunting seasons and even out-right closures. In a Los Angeles Times story, Dr. Alan Wentz, Ducks Unlimited's senior group manager for conservation, said: "This is a worst-case scenario. It represents a radical change of direction from 30 years of Clean Water Act implementation and judicial interpretation. If this becomes the (Army Corps of Engineers) interpretation of the law, it will create irreparable harm to those wetlands of greatest value to waterfowl, such as the prairie potholes of the northern Great Plains."
Added Ron Reynolds of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service: "The prairie pothole region would lose 40 percent of its carrying capacity for nesting ducks. If the American people allow this to happen, they must not care about ducks."
How did we get into this mess? A bit of history is in order.
In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act (CWA), which protected wetlands, particularly those small, isolated potholes that are essential for duck production and for filtering pollutants that run into larger bodies of water. The CWA drew the ire of the usual suspects: developers of all stripes. But it served the environment well. Dirty water -- miracle of miracles! -- became cleaner water.
But the landscape underwent a seismic change in 2001, when the Supreme Court ruled that Congress never intended to protect isolated and non-navigable waters. The ruling, in effect, gutted CWA protections. Since the court's shortsighted decision, federal lawmakers, mostly Democrats, introduced the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act, intended to protect non-navigable waters. Unfortunately for duck hunters and anyone who cherishes clean water, the Bush Administration and its willing allies have blocked the legislation. In truth, it was dead on arrival.
In January the EPA and Corps of Engineers announced they were considering re-writing the regulations that defined "waters of the United States," meaning which wetlands and streams would have CWA protections. While the EPA and Corps haven't announced the new rule, the Bush Administration's leak of the draft proposal is likely a signal of what's to come. For Mr. Bush, gutting the CWA makes perfect sense, at least politically. It would allow him to pay back some of his biggest financial contributors: real estate developers, mining and agricultural interests.
What's uncertain is how sportsmen will react. When Mr. Bush was campaigning for president, he actively courted the sportsmen vote under the guise of preserving gun rights. The strategy worked. Gun supporters voted for Mr. Bush in large numbers, particularly those in rural areas that are rich in natural resources (wetlands, streams, etc.). Now these same areas would be most impacted by the new rule.
Mr. Bush and his strategists played the conservationists like pawns in a chess game. Bottom line: In the context of hunting, our guns are meaningless if we don't have the habitat to produce the game we covet. Keep that in mind when you cast your vote in the next election. If Mr. Bush cares about the future of duck hunting, clean water and the general state of our environment, he'll tear up the leaked CWA draft proposal, toss it the garbage and rethink his "environmental" policy.
In a perfect world, he would. Then again, we don't live in a perfect world.
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