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President Clinton Announces Plan for Huge Environmental Conservation Program

Aired January 5, 2001 - 4:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: In his waning days in office, President Clinton sidestepped Congress today to trigger the biggest conservation program in decades. Within the past hour, Mr. Clinton issued an order that bans logging and drilling in national forests in 39 states. The order affects some 58 million acres, one-third of the land in the national forest system.

Now joining us from the White House, CNN's Eileen O'Connor with more on the last-minute efforts to leave a legacy -- Eileen. EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, U.S. officials point out that the president has been working on this rule for over a year, Joie. And they say it will protect 58.5 million acres of national forest. Basically, what the rule does is it prohibits logging and the creation of roads in these great national forests.

Now, the area actually covers more area than the national parks in the United States combined. It covers 39 states. It's being hailed by environmentalists as one of the most sweeping acts of conservation in decades. And, also, the president proposed the rule -- and in the waning days of his office, as you said. It is one of his biggest environmental initiatives. U.S. officials say it will take the Bush administration some period of time, though, to overturn this rule. They, too, would have to have a public-comment period, as well.

The president says he's doing this to preserve the open spaces of America for future generations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will protect nearly 60 million acres of pristine forest land for future generations. That is an area greater in size than all our national parks combined. From the Appalachian Mountains to the Sierra Nevada, forest land in 39 states will be preserved in all its splendor, off limits to road-building and logging that would destroy its timeless beauty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'CONNOR: But even the National Forest Service, in an economic- impact review for this rule, did say that it would eliminate some 400 jobs in the Tongass Forest in Alaska. Some 95 percent of the timber harvest there would be eliminated.

And critics say this new rule could also make it harder for people to manage forests, to prevent wildfires and insect infestation. And also, other critics say that it is was unnecessary, that, in fact, it is squandering the natural resources that America has had.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: We have a 17-million-acre virgin forest, 30 percent of which the timber is dead or dying and has no other useful purpose other than wood fiber, which of course went into the pulp mills. So as we look at this action, clearly it's an effort to accommodate environmental interests that obviously are very strong, but see the forests as some mythical area that is always the same. They don't recognize that a forest lives and dies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'CONNOR: President-elect Bush's aides and officials in the transition team say they will be reviewing this and other environmental rules recently passed by the president. But again, U.S. officials are denying that they rushed this through. They said they took over a year to work on it. They had some 600 public meetings. And the president himself said he received over a million-and-a-half e-mails and other letters and correspondence on this issue alone -- Joie.

CHEN: CNN's Eileen O'Connor for us at the White House.

Underlying what Eileen just told us about, despite Mr. Clinton's announcement today, the last word on the national forest situation may belong to the incoming president, George W. Bush. In Texas today, the president-elect's spokesperson promised reviews of all executive orders issued during the sunset of the Clinton administration.

CNN's Major Garrett is covering the Bush transition in Austin.

Major, what does the president-elect think about the current president's action on the environment?

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Joie, if there's one catch-phrase here in Austin at the Bush-Cheney transition headquarters in Washington, it is this: There is one president and one president only until January 20.

So right now, the Bush team is not going to be critical in any way, shape or form of actions undertaken by this president, whether it deals with the environment or on international-policy matters. But, clearly, both here in Austin and in Washington, the Bush team made it very clear that they are going to review all executive orders and make their own decisions come the day that president-elect Bush becomes president on January 20 -- Joie.

CHEN: But, Major, if the president-elect does choose to set this back, I mean, what would he do? Can he just turn around and say: No, I don't want to do this, I'm canceling the order? How is that done? What would be done?

GARRETT: There are a couple of options, Joie. One is to just write his own executive order reversing what the president did -- on any front. It could be with his forest designation. It could be on other matters. The other option is to go to Congress. One thing President Clinton encountered as he pressed his environmental agenda -- particularly after Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 -- is that Congress was very resistant to setting aside these sorts of lands through legislation.

So the president acted on his own, sort of stepped around Congress with executive orders. President Bush, if he chose to do so, could step right around Congress and the president and write his own executive order rescinding this action. But he also could seek legislation from Congress to rescind the action itself, and set his own environmental agenda that, not only he would endorse, but that Congress would endorse legislatively. Those are the two options.

CHEN: Major, what about Mr. -- the president-elect's day today. He is still, we understand, filling in some the blanks in his administration?

GARRETT: Filling in some of the blanks, named some sort of mid- to semi-senior-level advisers. I can say that CNN's own Mary Matalin will be rejoining public service. She has, of course never left the political dialogue. But she was named today a counselor to vice president-elect Dick Cheney, will be a top adviser to the vice president-elect when he becomes the vice president.

We are expecting announcements sometime later next week about CIA director. There has been quite a bit of talk that the existing CIA director, George Tenet, will be asked to stay on. Also, we're looking for an appointment to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations -- expecting that sometime next week -- Joie.

CHEN: All right, job appointment to fill on CROSSFIRE, then -- Major Garrett for us in Austin, Texas.

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