Progress Report - Chapter 3


Creative Approaches to Environmental Protection

In 1969, flames erupted from the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, generating public outrage and prompting Congress to pass the Clean Water Act. In 1978, thousands of leaking barrels of toxic chemicals were discovered at Love Canal, leading to the Superfund law.

A quarter-century ago, federal, state, and local governments responded to public concerns and began to build the world's most advanced system of environmental protection. It did so, however, crisis by crisis, thus creating an increasingly unwieldy system of laws and regulations--16 major national environmental laws, oversight by 74 congressional committees and subcommittees, and many thousands of environmental regulations. One mile of the San Francisco Bay delta estuary--the most human-altered estuary on the West Coast-- is affected by the decisions of more than 400 agencies.

Not infrequently, the nation accomplished less environmental cleanup than it had hoped, and more "pollution shifting." Factories, for instance, put scrubbers on smokestacks to control sulfur dioxide emissions. But the scrubbers produced waste that the companies discharged into rivers and lakes or sludge that they buried in landfills. [16]

The nation's rifle-shot approach to environmental protection is ill-suited to address the problems of the nation's multi-faceted ecological systems, or "ecosystems." These systems--e.g., South Florida--provide the nation with such needed goods as food, water, energy, scientific information, and recreational opportunities.

From Red Tape to Results endorsed a concept known as "ecosystem management." Under it, managers of the land, water, and other public resources consider both the natural processes and the human activities in a given geographic region. By understanding how people interact with natural processes, the managers can better meet short- and long-term environmental goals. This approach calls upon agencies, and offices within agencies, to reach across jurisdictional fences and work together on the overarching goal of protecting ecosystems.

As an example, the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, and other public and private organizations have joined in a comprehensive effort to plan and coordinate strategies to protect South Florida's ecosystem. [17]

South Florida, with a growing population of more than five million, is home to the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, Big Cypress, the Everglades, Florida Bay, the Keys and adjacent estuaries, and near-coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The ecosystem, which faces increasingly complex environmental challenges, is the major nursery for Florida's largest commercial and sport fisheries, home to the nation's only living coral reef, North America's most significant breeding ground for wading birds, the major producer of America's winter vegetables, and a big tourist region. [18]

Besides ecosystem management, some agencies are launching other creative approaches to protecting the environment. EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner, for instance, is reaching out to all parties with potential roles to play. Environmental protection, she says, can no longer succeed as an adversarial process, with the polluter on one side of the table and the offended party on the other. Now, all parties must sit and work together.

This summer, she proposed the "Common Sense Initiative," a project through which the EPA will regulate six industries in their entirety--rather than on a pollutant-by-pollutant basis. The six industries that Browner chose, employing almost four million Americans and representing nearly 14 percent of the economy, are iron and steel, electronics and computers, metal plating and finishing, auto manufacturing, printing, and oil refining. For each industry, the EPA is forming a team that's headed by top EPA officials but will include industry officials, environmental activists, state and local government officials, union representatives, and perhaps officials from other federal agencies. The teams may suggest regulatory changes or seek legislation from Congress.

At the Interior Department, meanwhile, Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls his effort to work across old jurisdictional lines "virtual management." As he put it, "If we go about the business of serving the public, we dismantle the barriers that separate all of the agencies one from another and that in the past, in many cases, became airtight compartments, here, even within the Interior Department." [19]

Consider what Interior Secretary Babbitt has accomplished, with the help of an internal management council [20] that he set up to meet NPR's objectives:

In late 1993, Interior created the National Biological Survey, an agency-wide effort to provide Americans with the best biological science possible. Though it has a small staff, it has called on over 100 employees from across the department and other agencies (e.g., EPA, Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who have served on detail for anywhere from several weeks to nine months.

The department is developing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), a government wide effort to map by spatial coordinates, where possible, data that the federal government collects. Later, the information will be stored and retrievable not only to government employees but to any private sector entrepreneur or schoolchild. NSDI will reduce wasteful duplication in the government's collection, management, and dissemination of data, on which it spends at least $4 billion a year. Secretary Babbitt chairs the Federal Geographic Data Committee--the lead organization in coordinating government wide NSDI activities--and other agencies have appointed high-level representatives.


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