Democrats' takeover brings hope to environmentalists

There will be some new buzzwords in Washington and St. Paul over the next two years after Democrats' takeover of Congress and the state House last week, bringing a decidedly more environmental bent to national and state government.

There will be some new buzzwords in Washington and St. Paul over the next two years after Democrats' takeover of Congress and the state House last week, bringing a decidedly more environmental bent to national and state government.

In will be phrases such as alternative energy, wetlands protection and climate change legislation.

Out are concepts such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, selling national park properties and reforming the Endangered Species Act.

While tempering their enthusiasm with the reality that George W. Bush is still president, a Republican still leads Minnesota government and the U.S. Supreme Court still is dominated by conservatives, environmental groups say they are poised not just to turn back Wise-Use doctrine but to move toward additionalenvironmental protection.

Environmental groups say the past few congresses have been some of the most anti-environment of the past half-century, with Republicans leading the charge to drill for oil in Alaska refuges and open sensitive public lands in the West to drilling and mining. They also stopped almost every effort to curb human-caused greenhouses gases or expand federal protections of wetlands or endangered species. Efforts to promote wind, solar and other alternative energies often were lost in the move to extract more coal, oil and gas.


Key players replaced

In some cases, replacing just a few people may make a big difference. U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., was soundly defeated in his district mainly, environmental groups claim, because of his vehement anti-environment agenda. Pombo was leading the House effort to drastically change the Endangered Species Act and was a leader in the Sagebrush rebellion anti-government, property-rights movement.

Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia probably will replace Pombo as head of the House Resources Committee. The League of Conservation Voters gave Rahall a 92 rating out of a possible 100 compared to Pombo's 17.

Pombo was on a "Dirty Dozen'' list compiled by the league. Nine of the 12 were defeated Tuesday, also including Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Few believe the environment was anywhere near as big an issue with voters as the Iraq war or even House Republican scandals. But many environmentalists say their messages finally may be sinking in.

"As environmentalists, we're often frustrated that our issues are not part of the political conservation," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. "But in race after race across the country, the environment was part of the conversation (this election) ... and we're proud of what we did.''

Some Minnesota races also helped turned the tide in Washington. DFLer Amy Klobuchar's victory over Republican Mark Kennedy for a U.S. Senate seat was a big win for conservationists who endorsed Klobuchar. Kennedy held only a 33 rating with the league. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Republican from southeastern Minnesota with a zero rating from the league, also was defeated. In Northeastern Minnesota, incumbent DFLer Jim Oberstar, with a 66 rating from the league, easily defeated Republican Rod Grams who, as a U.S. senator, was rated between zero and 11 by the league, among the worst environmental ratings in the Senate.

Liberal California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer is set to take over the Environment and Public Works Committee from conservative Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Instead of regulatory reform and scaling back federal protections, common themes under Inhofe, Boxer said last week that her top priorities for legislative action will include global warming, toxic waste cleanup, energy efficiency and alternative fuels.


The changes also could mean more attention for the Great Lakes, with regional congressmen now leading spending, rules, transportation and energy committees. That could mean greater spending for Great Lakes restoration efforts.

"The Great Lakes are fortunate to have some real champions now serving as powerful committee chairmen and if they live up to their promise, that's good news for issues like invasive species, sewage overflows, wetlands and habitat loss and toxic cleanup,'' said Jordan Lubetkin, Great Lakes communications director for the National Wildlife Federation. "We don't have Democratic or Republican lakes, and we need both sides to get this done. ... But maybe with people who live in the Great Lakes in key positions now, we get a better seat at the table.''

Closer to home

In Minnesota, DFLers expanded to a huge majority in the Senate -- from a 39-28 DFL lead to a 44-23 margin. They also dramatically won back the House, turning a68-66 Republican lead to an85-49 DFL edge.

But a DFL label doesn't necessarily mean the lawmaker is a strong environmentalist, and the group Clean Water Action says it has 69 of 134 votes in the House counted as solid pro-environment. While that's a razor-thin majority for greens, it's the first environment advantage in a decade.

With a state budget surplus, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty also signaled during the campaign that environmental issues such as clean water may get more attention.

"We finally have a House of Representatives that can truly represent the people of Minnesota on environmental issues," Marie Zellar, regional director for Clean Water Action, said Friday in a statement. The group worked on18 campaigns in Minnesota this year, with 15 of those candidates winning last Tuesday. The group said it made 47,000 face-to-face and telephone contacts on behalf of their endorsed candidates, talking about key conservation issues.

Zellar hopes the new DFL leadership in the House means more on Clean Water Action's priority policies, including cleaning up polluted lakes and rivers, aggressively developing clean energy sources and addressing serious environmental health threats.


Open debate

DFL Rep. Jean Wagenius of Minneapolis is in line to become chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, taking over from Republican Dennis Ozment of Rosemount. Wagenius, considered a strong environmentalist, said Republican House and committee leadership in recent years has thwarted discussion on environmental issues.

"If I get the job, I can tell you we will have a strong subcommittee process and a very open process ... and we will spend the time on complicated issues that they deserve,'' Wagenius said. "For too many issues critical to our state, we've spent 15 minutes or nothing at all.''

It's not clear how legislative leanings on more contentious issues such as ATV regulations and copper mining restrictions will change. But Wagenius said the Legislature will, for the first time, tackle issues surrounding state regulations to curb human-caused greenhouse gases that the vast majority of scientists say is causing global climate change.

"We also need to take a much better look at the situation with ducks in Minnesota and why they are declining. You can't support the tradition of duck hunting and not have any ducks,'' she said. "And that leads to clean water. We've taken some steps in that direction. ... We've thrown a little more money at it. But we don't really have a clean water master plan.''

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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