Albion Monitor /News

Corporate Dollars Defeated Enviro Voters

by Pratap Chatterjee

The real election losers were forests, swamps, and endangered habitats

(IPS) SAN FRANCISCO -- Environmentalists who poured their money and volunteer time into the U.S. election campaign did not get far in their lobbying efforts in the face of the powerful multinational corporations that control mining, logging, and sugar industries.

And activists contend that the real election losers were the red spruce and hemlock forests of northern Maine, dense pine forests in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana, and the saw-grass prairie and mangrove swamps of southern Florida.

Environmentalists from Maine, Montana, and Florida spent millions of dollars on initiatives urging citizens to vote for protection of these endangered habitats, but big business outspent them.

"The companies spent about $2.2 million, over four times what we spent"

Many states allow citizens to place an initiative on the ballot. If a majority of people vote in favor, the proposal then becomes law, unless courts rule that the law violates either the U.S. or state constitution.

Californians voted overwhelmingly on a proposal to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and several years ago, another proposal placed a limit on the amount of car insurance companies could charge customers. But political observers noted the practice of putting referendums on the ballot has largely been hijacked by "special interests," ranging from the tobacco industry to anti-immigration groups.

"The idea of ballot initiatives, when it was made popular 20 or 30 years ago, was a tool for citizen participation," says Bill Walker of the California League of Conservation Voters. "Unfortunately, now it has become a big business, where firms charge money to collect signatures and design advertising for propositions."

Andrew Dunn of the Montana Environmental Information Center says that this is precisely what defeated the proposal that his organization helped put on the ballot.

"We asked voters to require companies to meet existing environmental rules for the discharge of toxic waste from new mines into local rivers," he said.

Not that these are extremely strict rules. Dunn pointed out that existing standards for the discharge of arsenic have been lowered to a thousandth of what was previously required, and the proposal did not require mines to change their practice.

The mining industry responded swiftly, with Asarco, Pegasus, Phelps-Dodge, and Placer Dome ploughing vast amounts of money into television ads, newspaper inserts, and direct mail appeals to home- owners in Montana.

"The companies spent about $2.2 million, over four times the $360,000 that we spent," says Dunn. "They did a great job of confusing people."

The mining initiative was defeated. The environmentalists mustered only 43 percent of the vote.

Politicians and industry officials attacked the greens

In northern Maine, Jonathan Carter of the Green Party sponsored a proposal to ban the clear-cutting of forests, a practice conducted mainly by major paper companies. Clear-cutting is carried out by "feller-bunchers," huge machines that allow a single worker sitting in an air-conditioned cockpit high above the ground to drive through the forests chewing up every tree in its path.

Politicians and industry officials attacked the greens.

"(The proposal) is a loaded gun pointed at the head of the Maine economy," said Maine governor Angus King, who argued that the measure would affect individuals and large companies alike.

The Maine Forest Service estimated the proposal would slash the annual timber harvest by 36 percent. The State Planning Office, in a separate economic analysis, predicted the measure would put 15,600 Maine residents out of work and cut the state's annual economic output by $1.3 billion.

"Will any non-paper interests be negatively affected (by the proposal? The answer is maybe," wrote one supporter of the initiative during an electronic discussion on the Internet. Those who were planning to clear-cut their land will need to rethink their management techniques."

Outspending the environmentalists' $306,000 budget, Maine logging companies like Boise Cascade, Champion, and Georgia-Pacific contributed the bulk of a $1.3 million campaign for an alternative proposal that would allow them to police their own logging operations.

Most of the industry money was paid out to Winner, Wagner, and Mandebach, a Los Angeles consulting firm that specializes in referendum campaigns. The campaign also paid for a page on the World Wide Web. Neither proposal gained the minimum 50 percent of the vote required for passage into law.

In southern Florida, environmentalists were joined by Paul Tudor Jones, a wealthy commodities broker from Connecticut, in calling for the sugar industry to pay a one cent tax on every pound of sugar sold to help save the Everglades National Park.

Herons, storks, panthers and other wildlife that once roamed the Everglades prairies and swamps were decimated early this century when the state government drained large areas to make the rich muck suitable for farmland.

Today, water continues to be drained from parts of the Everglades to irrigate sugarcane fields which have expanded by an estimated seven times in the last 25 years. In addition, run-off from fertilizers and pesticides often finds its way back to the swamp.

Jones financed about three-quarters of the $11 million campaign to raise an estimated $1 billion for the clean up of the Everglades. But the sugar industry spent at least twice that and successfully defeated the tax proposal.

"This tax will drastically impact working families and derail the ongoing restoration of the Everglades," wrote the campaign directors on a World Wide Web page. "Tens of thousands of full-time employees of sugar farmers, their families, and other Floridians whose jobs depend on sugar farming are at risk this election."

Environmental groups pointed out that, in fact, taxpayers are already paying huge sums of money to support the sugar industry.

"We have a national park that is dying," says Jones. "It is going to cost at least $2 billion to save it. One of the major contributors to its degradation is paying only 15 percent of that. The heart of the issue is should they pay more, so the taxpayers will not have to?"

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Albion Monitor November 23, 1996 (

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