By David Helvarg
November 3, 2010
The November 2 election gave control of the House of Representatives to the Republican Party and expanded their base in the Senate. It will also likely expand the partisan rancor of our dysfunctional political system that was mocked by the quarter million folks who turned out for Comedy Central’s Rally to Restore Sanity the weekend before the election.
But there’s nothing funny about the declining state of our public seas from over-exploitation and pollution. While ocean and coastal conservation has historically been a bipartisan issue, many moderate Republican House and Senate members who were once key advocates for marine protection such as Rep. Jim Saxon of New Jersey, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island are now gone. In their place are anti-government zealots who distrust any regulation by land or by sea. On the other side of the aisle some normally progressive democrats like Barney Frank have strongly opposed plans to stop overfishing. He follows the lead of commercial fishermen in his Massachusetts district who don’t use the same science-based approach to their work as fishermen in Alaska and elsewhere.
Oddly, there still may be some modicum of hope among even the most conservative of Republicans. Remember George W. Bush’s Blue Asterisks? While arguably the worst environmental president in history, he also gave us the nation’s first true ocean wilderness parks, starting with Northwest Hawaii’s huge Papahanaumokuakea Marine Monument back in 2006 (see Blue Notes #27).
In the 112th Congress expect to see President Obama’s newly established Ocean Council come under attack as another wasteful government bureaucracy. In fact, it is an (sadly unfunded) attempt to coordinate more than two-dozen government bureaucracies (i.e. federal departments and agencies) to reduce conflict and redundancy at the national level while sustainably managing the uses of our publicly owned seas through regional initiatives. The attempt to also incorporate an ocean conservation trust fund into a Senate oil spill response bill—if not passed during the 111th Congress’s lame duck session—will likely die at the hands of those who want to slash government spending even as private sector spending has stalled out.
The new Senate may become even more obdurate when it comes to getting a confirmation vote for the Law of the Sea treaty that has been languishing (at this point more like festering) in that august body for years. While almost all ocean stakeholders from the Pentagon to the shipping industry to Greenpeace think the U.S. needs to be an active player in this U.N. convention that determines global actions on ocean issues, a handful of right-wing senators including James Inhofe, David Vitter and the Tea Party’s Jim DeMint claim it is an attempt to undermine U.S. sovereignty.
Another problem may be how we address fossil-fuel-fired climate change impacts on our public seas such as acidification, loss of Arctic sea ice and sea-level rise when climate change denial has become an ideological, rather than science-based, issue for many Republican office holders. Over half of Tea Party members who have been the drivers of the recent Republican surge believe global warming poses no problem while 85 percent of the public thinks it does, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll. Not coincidentally many of the key groups backing Tea Party candidates such as ‘Americans for Prosperity’ are also funded by the oil industry. Expect Capitol Hill debates over ocean policies and politics to get even more heated in the next few years, not unlike the ocean itself.
Blue Frontier is involved in Richmond, California (where we have our West Coast office) working to Save Point Molate (see Blue Notes #68). This is the last large undeveloped headland on San Francisco Bay that the city council of this low-income mostly Hispanic and African American town has been trying to sell off to a developer for a promised “billion dollar” Las Vegas-style Indian Casino that would include 4,000 slot machines and a seven story parking structure.
Measure U, a ballot measure to determine what the more than 100,000 residents of Richmond think about this, was heavily fought over with close to a million dollars spent on the initiative both by the “destination resort,” casino developer ($500,000) and local card rooms and smaller Indian gaming interests who didn’t want the competition (over $450,000). At the same time Chevron, with a refinery complex in the city, pumped a million dollars into the campaigns of 3 pro-Chevron candidates who were also pro-Casino. The city council had been split 4-3 in favor of the Casino. Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin (pictured, with me) led the minority faction opposed to the plan.
Last minute pre-election maneuvers included a local shoreline parks group announcing a non-disclosure deal with the developer at Point Molate press conference. They agreed to drop its longstanding lawsuit in exchange for a promised $48 million pay out from the slots to buy up additional shoreline for conservation (that could mostly be outside of Richmond). Weirdly, the San Francisco Chapter of Sierra Club endorsed this deal for “sustainable development” adding their name to a pro-casino flyer that then went out to voters.
But the Richmond-based Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate (CFSPM), now a project of Blue Frontier Campaign, called it “throwing Richmond under the gambling bus,” and released a statement from two dozen environmental, labor and fishing groups opposed to the Casino and calling instead for a world-class park at Point Molate similar to San Francisco’s Presidio and Marin County’s Fort Baker.
When the people of Richmond finally got to vote they rejected the pro-Casino Measure U by a vote of 57.5 percent to 42.5 percent. Mayor McLaughlin was also re-elected along with two new anti-casino candidates (replacing two of the Chevron backed candidates). The new city council majority will almost certainly follow the people’s wishes and drop the casino scheme.
Meanwhile Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate has begun working with a pro-bono group of young urban planners to envision what a working park might look like and will start engaging their fellow citizens in the process of turning that vision into the third major jewel of Bay area shoreline parks that can provide jobs, recreation and natural wonder for all.