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Bush Has Activists Seeing Green

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    Environmental groups are mobilizing an all-out assault on President Bush's record, aiming to convince New Mexicans that the administration is failing to protect public lands, water resources and air quality.
    The League of Conservation Voters is trying to enlist thousands of volunteers to knock on doors in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
    The Natural Resources Defense Council has sponsored two radio spots and is planning newspaper ads.
    The Sierra Club hired two full-time staffers as part of its campaign and will release a report soon on what it considers environmental failures of the Republican administration.
    "People are more aggressive about it this year because of the stakes," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Wednesday during a visit to Albuquerque. "Today, you can't talk about the environment honestly without being critical of this president."
    Kennedy, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, is touring the country to talk about what he calls rollbacks of environmental laws by the Bush administration.
    Some of the efforts, like the League of Conservation Voters' Environmental Victory Project, are campaigns clearly aimed at supporting Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
    Other groups, that for tax reasons cannot play politics, are billing their efforts as education programs that don't endorse a candidate but focus on Bush's environmental record.
    Whatever the efforts are called, the bottom line is that green groups are weighing in at an apparently unprecedented level this year.
    "Bush is so bad on everything these groups care about. They can't see another four years of this," said Edward Sullivan, a Santa Fe political consultant who works with environmental groups.
   
Not a top issue
    Even though the environment has not been cited as a top issue by some New Mexico voters this year— it ranked eighth among top concerns of New Mexico Democrats in a Journal poll in January— it still might be a powerful issue in the presidential race.
    "Some New Mexicans call themselves environmentalists and some don't, but all New Mexicans are concerned about their air and their water quality," said veteran political analyst Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc. in Albuquerque.
    Environmentalists are critical of Bush for his efforts to increase oil and gas drilling on federal land, such as Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico; for a proposal they see as weakening restrictions on mercury emissions from power plants; for not addressing global warming; and for refusing to reauthorize a tax on industry to pay for Superfund cleanups.
    Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Danny Diaz disputed environmental criticism, saying the president has "an accomplished record of achievement on the environment."
    "He's focused on results," Diaz said in a recent interview. "He's focused on making our air and our water and our land cleaner."
   
Counter-efforts
    The Bush campaign is countering the environmental groups by talking to voters in person, on the phone and on Web chats as well as by using advertising, Diaz said.
    In addition, several high-level Bush administration officials have visited New Mexico in recent months. Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles went to Kenna on the east side of the state to tout a landowner incentive program for wildlife conservation. The Interior and Agriculture departments co-sponsored a salt cedar conference in Albuquerque. The heads of the National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management all have visited the state this year.
    Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney campaign has challenged some environmental groups' efforts in a complaint before the Federal Election Commission, claiming they are illegally spending so-called soft money— money that eludes the definition of regulated campaign funds— and coordinating with Kerry's campaign.
   
Battleground state
    New Mexico is one of a handful of states on the environmental groups' target lists, in part because the election is expected to be tight here. Bush lost New Mexico in 2000 to Democrat Al Gore by only 366 votes.
    The biggest effort is coming from the League of Conservation Voters. It launched the Environmental Victory Project last month in New Mexico, Oregon, Florida and Wisconsin.
    The project aims to recruit 5,000 volunteers to knock on 215,000 doors and staff phone banks, stage town hall meetings on specific issues, send direct mail to targeted voters and buy television time.
    The main thrust, though, is one-on-one contact with voters. "That's the most effective way to communicate a message and educate voters on an issue," said campaign director Maggie Toulouse of Albuquerque.
    The project will target Albuquerque, Santa Fe and parts of Sandoval County because "that's where most of the swing voters are," she said.
    Many southern New Mexico voters historically have tended to be more conservative and unfriendly to environmental causes like endangered species protection.
    Like most groups, the League of Conservation Voters will not disclose its budget, but Toulouse said it will spend millions nationwide to try to defeat Bush.
    Environmentalist and Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich said the environment is the issue where there is the clearest contrast between Bush and Kerry.
    "It's one of those issues that in a tight state can tip the balance," he said.
   
Plan of action
    Environmental groups are launching campaigns in New Mexico to talk about President Bush's record on "green issues." Among them:
   
  • Durango, Colo.-based WILD PAC will hire staffers and organizers to work in New Mexico to highlight wilderness issues as part of a $600,000, seven-state campaign. "New Mexico is one of our top tier states," said Executive Director Victoria Simarano.
       
  • The local Sierra Club chapter will educate voters through a grass-roots effort with members talking to neighbors and fellow shoppers. And, the national club's voter education and get-out-the-vote campaign might include New Mexico.
       
  • Save Our Environment spent more than $7,000 for television spots in Albuquerque that say the Bush administration is auctioning off the country's environment to "big oil" and others.
       
  • The New Mexico Public Interest Research Group issued a report called "New Mexico's Environment at Risk" outlining the local impacts of the Bush administration's environmental policies.
       
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council— working with New Mexico Conservation Voters, PIRG and the Southwest Research and Information Center— put on a statewide radio advertising campaign last month that featured actors Robert Redford and Edward James Olmos telling listeners the Bush administration is weakening environmental protection.