A conservation conservative

Alexander, his supporters tout senator’s environmental record, but critics disagree

Posted on June 12, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Lamar Alexander can't forget the day, at age 12, when he watched helplessly as a black bear ate his Boy Scout troop's breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon. Growling that day along a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were both the bear and Alexander's empty stomach. Fifty-four years later, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., still keeps a home in Blount County near the Smokies park. He said he has no problem with visiting bears, either. He keeps his trash containers locked and his food secured inside so humans and nature can peacefully co-exist. The former Tennessee governor believes that sense of balance extends to his record on the environment. As he gears up to run next year for another six-year Senate term, he said he is proud of his work on conservation issues, such as his stance as a primary backer of a clean-air bill and efforts to ensure steady funding for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. He gets high marks from some and low scores from others. Alexander also likes to say he has an independent attitude while believing in conservative principles. At times he and the Bush administration differ, such as with clean-air legislation. Alexander's bill calls for significant emissions reductions beyond President Bush's proposal for the pollutants mercury and carbon dioxide. "I just look at the issue and come to my own conclusion and work with the (Bush) administration. When we differ, I try to learn from them and hope sometimes they learn from me. I think (part of) my job is to help the president come up with a strong administration position on the environment," Alexander said. Praise for his record Alexander has enjoyed hiking regularly since his Scouting days. "My interest in parks and the environment is a combination of being in a great Scout program and growing up on the edge of the Smokies," said the Maryville native. The National Parks Conservation Association recently gave him the William Penn Mott Award, the group's highest award for leadership in protecting America's natural and cultural heritage. The association cited his record, including work toward cleaner air, helping win federal approval of a land exchange that protects more than 10,000 acres of undeveloped land between the national park and Cherokee National Forest, and his opposition to building a road into the eastern side of the Smokies. "Lamar Alexander is a national parks champion because he gets what national parks are about," association spokesman Don Barger said. "National parks have to protect more than just resources. They are protecting heritage, a sense of place, history, experience and opportunity. He understands the value of being able to stand by a quiet stream and not hear anything other than natural sounds." Alexander has been honored by the American Lung Association, the solar industry and the Outdoor Industry Association for work on the clean-air bills, solar energy tax credits, and help passing funding for states for land and water conservation grants. Alexander said Tennesseans expect him to look out for the land. "If you ask people why they live in Maryville, they say it's the most beautiful place in the world," he said. "The Sevierville Chamber of Commerce says their top issue is clean air," to keep the tourists coming back and to preserve a strong local economy. His critics The League of Conservation Voters, advised by 20 environmental groups, rated Alexander on selected votes as "pro-environment" only 29 percent of the time. In three votes cited he favored drilling for oil. "We don't think that drilling in sensitive areas is a sensible part of a new energy future," said league spokeswoman Tiernan Sittenfeld. "Sen. Alexander was definitely not in the right place" on drilling. Jeff Holmstead, a former Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator under President George W. Bush, faulted Alexander's air pollution bill. Instead of reducing carbon emissions at power plants, as Alexander suggests, the country should promote energy efficiency in appliances and lighting, he said. Also, Holmstead said it is expensive and unnecessary to adopt Alexander's mercury emissions reductions for power plants of 90 percent by 2015, rather than Bush's goal of 70 percent. However, Alexander argues that power plants are responsible for 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, which endanger the planet. Mercury, sulfur and nitrogen emissions can and should be reduced within a reasonable cost, he said. "There's no way to make everybody happy," Alexander said. "It's a question of balance and judgment." He said the LCV League of Conservation Voters' vote choices were unfair, not giving him credit for work on the off-shore drilling change to dedicate one-eighth or more of royalties to boost the federal land and water conservation fund. While a supporter of most alternative energy, Alexander has criticized tax credits for giant wind turbine towers planned in scenic areas. He said the towers are eyesores, operate a small percentage of the time and produce "puny" power levels. He owns land in Nantucket, Mass., near a proposed off-shore wind farm. He said his land does not face the proposed power site, so that plan doesn't affect him. "I want to save our mountaintops and not scar them" with giant wind turbines, he said. The American Wind Energy Association stated: "Basically, we really don't understand why the senator has been opposed to wind power." Christine Real de Azua, a wind energy spokeswoman, said one modern wind turbine can generate electricity to power 300 to 400 homes for a year. Denmark gets 20 percent of its power from wind, while the U.S. share is under 1 percent, she said. Seeking consensus, staying independent In the Senate, Alexander often teams with a Democrat to get things done. He worked for several years with Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., to cut power plant emissions. Nothing has passed yet. Carper said he and Alexander, as former governors, "tend to be more results-oriented. We want to figure out what works and do it. Lamar is smart and has got good people around him." This year Alexander is pairing with Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut. Lieberman said he believes their clean-air bill can get the 60-vote majority needed to move from stalemate to passage. "Lamar is a great legislator," Lieberman said. "Lamar wants to get things done, so that's part of what draws us together. I think we can do some significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions." Bush's popularity is low, mostly as a result of the long war in Iraq, which Alexander supports. Will Alexander be viewed as independent enough to win re-election next year? Alexander does favor a revised strategy for Iraq. Recently he and a Democrat, Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, announced they are introducing legislation to require that U.S. policy in Iraq be "consistent with" the December 2006 recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Several senators from the two major parties have joined the bill. The Iraq group's suggestions include making the highest U.S. priority the training of Iraqi troops, closer oversight of economic reconstruction programs, and setting conditions that could result in the redeployment of a number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq as early as the first quarter of 2008. "I think people in Tennessee know me well enough to know ... I'm pretty independent," Alexander said. "I've consistently spoken up on the issues when I thought that I needed to."