GOP Rule a Bitter Pill for Oregon Environmentalists

Portland, Ore., is one of the capitals of the environmental movement. But the politically liberal city is having some difficulty adjusting to the conservative turn in federal politics.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This month NPR reporters are on the road, crossing the country, talking to Americans about their relationship with government. The war in Iraq, the economy, immigration--we hear about a variety of issues from a variety of perspectives and a variety of places. We're going to start today in Portland, Oregon, a capital of the environmental movement. As NPR's Jeff Brady learned, the city is having a hard time adjusting to the conservative administration in Washington.

(Soundbite of blues concert)

JEFF BRADY reporting:

This is Pioneer Courthouse Square, also known as Portland's living room, and today in the living room there's a blues concert.

(Soundbite of blues concert)

BRADY: Ask those milling around on the red bricks and you'll get even more of the blues.

Ms. SHANNON DUNDER (Portland, Oregon): My name's Shannon Dunder. I'm unemployed right now. I would say the biggest issue right now is the political party. I don't care for it. The biggest problem is that they don't listen to the little people.

BRADY: She's one of the polite ones. Here's Devon Watson(ph) of Portland.

Mr. DEVON WATSON (Portland, Oregon): Well, if you want to start with Bush, I think he's totally obnoxious. I think he ought to be in jail next to Saddam Hussein and the vice president and Wolfowitz along with him.

BRADY: When it comes to red and blue politics, you don't get much bluer than Portland. Multnomah County, which is dominated by Portland, voted for John Kerry by more than a 2:1 margin. There aren't many Republicans to be found here in the square with the hacky sack players, but up on the street near the fancy shops, Teresa McIsaac(ph) says she's a conservative and she's pretty happy with President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. McIsaac talked soberly of high taxes and too much spending on social programs, but the moment environmentalists are mentioned...

Mr. TERESA McISAAC (Portland, Oregon): All those green people need to go hug trees and just leave us alone.

BRADY: Portland is a center for environmental activism. There are more than 50 environmental groups listed in the Yellow Pages. Some focus on improving wild salmon runs, others on saving old-growth forests. Andy Stahl's group is called Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

Mr. ANDY STAHL (Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics): I'm in the business of solving environmental conflicts, and I can't do that with my government right now.

BRADY: Stahl takes environmental complaints from Forest Service employees. In the past, he says, he could call up the person's boss and often resolve the issue. But now, Stahl says, that doesn't work.

Mr. STAHL: My government is more interested in fighting about ideology, in fighting about whether government should be big or small, in fighting about whether states should decide how lands are managed or the Congress, and it's not interested in solving real-life problems.

BRADY: Stahl's critics say the reduced clout of environmentalists is their own fault. A few hours south of Portland in timber-rich Douglas County, Commissioner Doug Robertson says environmentalists succeeded in virtually shutting down logging on public lands in the '80s and '90s.

Mr. DOUG ROBERTSON (Douglas County Commissioner): They've used the Endangered Species Act very skillfully to curtail activities on a whole host of fronts. But along with that, there's been a significant cost and impact to communities and counties, particularly in the rural areas, that is now translating to costs in the urban areas.

BRADY: And these days Douglas County is solidly Republican. Last November residents here voted exactly the opposite of Portland, more than 2:1 for President Bush. Local political leaders often blame the big environmental laws for hurting their economies, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act. Lewis & Clark environmental law Professor William Funk says establishing far-reaching regulations was an efficient use of the limited resources environmentalists had in the past, but Funk says there's a subtler reason environmentalists have hit a rough patch. He says the movement has matured and it's not so easy to get people fired up.

Professor WILLIAM FUNK (Lewis & Clark College): Rivers were on fire, you know, before the Clean Water Act. I mean, that doesn't happen anymore, and a lot of rivers that were unsafe are now swimmable. So that the problems are not as clear, not as obvious and, therefore, the support for those programs isn't as great.

(Soundbite of blues concert)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Close to me, baby, I can hand your hand...

BRADY: Not only does Portland know how to sing the blues when federal politics aren't going its way; it knows how to drown them, too. This past weekend, just a few blocks down from Pioneer Courthouse Square was the Oregon Brewers Festival, the self-proclaimed largest event of its kind in the nation. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Portland, Oregon.

NORRIS: We'll have another report from the road tomorrow, and you can learn more about the project at our Web site, npr.org.

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