Thursday, February 03, 2011

May the Ranchers Be With You

One of the things we like about our new home is the way Michigan state and local governments have provided connections with recycling systems.

Most of our household trash is picked up monthly at the curb by a private contractor hired by our township who separates plastics, glass, and paper for processing. State law makes it possible for cans and bottles of many types to be returned to major supermarkets at any time for a refund of the 5 cents each that we pay when we buy the originals.

Where we previously lived in Utah, aluminum drink cans were the only items readily recyclable. We saved them in big bags in the garage for a couple of months, and then had to make a 12-mile roundtrip to a junkyard in a shabby part of Ogden to collect five or six dollars. We did that, not because we were hard up for five bucks, but because we were strong believers in the benefits to society of recycling. Lots of people didn’t bother.

Enthusiasm for new large-scale recycling programs surged throughout the country in the early 1970s as the environmental movement began to flower. The new activists no longer were satisfied with supporting an occasional paper drive by the Boy Scouts or our traditional reliance on random trips to junk dealers who bought scrap metal.

I was the Public Information Officer for the Boise National Forest in Idaho in 1972. The Forest Supervisor was designated as the liaison between the U. S. Forest Service and the state legislature. One of my duties was to help with the legislative tasks.

Up popped a bill in the legislature to require food markets to pay five cents for every metal can turned in to them. At the time, most cans sold in Idaho were steel, not aluminum, and the economics of reusing can metal were not good. An association of can manufacturers and several large grocery chains announced their firm opposition to the “five cent bill.”

One legislator and two prominent environmentalists asked us to testify in favor of the bill. We had to get approval from the Regional Forester to give testimony on a state matter. We asked for approval. A denial came quickly. Regional Office staffers said although we had littering problems on National Forest land, it was a minor concern compared to other issues. They did not want us to appear to be interfering in a state matter by pushing a recycling bill in what was a very conservative state.

Dick Stauber, our Recreation and Lands staff officer, wanted to support the bill. So did I. Stauber was a stickler about keeping our facilities and adjacent lands in good condition, and he thought anything that would reduce litter was worthy of endorsement. I thought supporting the bill would give us some needed support from local environmentalists.

As good civil servants often do, we found a way to game the system. Stauber volunteered to testify, and we had a little strategy meeting with Supervisor Ed Maw. Maw grew up in Idaho and had many contacts in our area. He was well aware that environmental groups were relatively weak, and commodity groups were powerful. He also knew ignoring Regional Office people generally was not a good idea. He reluctantly agreed to let Stauber go ahead. Maw told me to accompany him to the hearing. I got the feeling he wanted me there to take the blame if something went badly wrong.

The hearing room was crowded. Opponents of the bill spoke first. Maw was fidgeting around nervously in the chair next to me. Then, a few supporters spoke before Stauber was called. His opening words were:

“I’m Richard Stauber, Recreation and Lands Staff Officer for the Boise National Forest, U.S. Forest Service. I’m testifying in favor of this bill as President of the Boise Chapter of the Society of American Foresters.”

Who could argue with that? He didn’t really claim to represent the Forest Service. I wondered later if he actually asked any SAF members what they thought about the bill. He indeed was the local chapter president that year, so maybe he felt he didn’t have to.

A few minutes later the hearing ended. Maw had stopped fidgeting and had a little smile on his face.

I said, “Stauber did a nice job, don’t you think.”

Maw said, “Yeah, but that didn’t matter much. As soon as I heard that guy from the Cattlemen’s Association support the bill, I knew we were in good shape.”

Unfortunately, our trickery didn’t carry the day. The bill died in committee. But we did come away with a few new friends, and no new enemies.

1 comment:

Jon said...

The one time my wife and I traveled through Utah we couldn't help but notice all the diamond-like sparkling along the shoulders of the road. Curiosity got the best of me and we stopped. It was broken glass. Miles and miles of broken glass. My (at that time) neutral feelings about Utah changed. A beautiful place being turned into a pig sty by its own citizens.