In the Clinton era, the contours of environmental politics settled into a triangulated landscape, bounded by the Executive Office Building and its agency outlets (where administrative fiats were handed down with devastating finality); the committee rooms of Congress (where the chairmen of the all-important appropriations committees dole out pork and pollution); and the grey mansions of the special interest lobbies, both environmental and industrial, stacked along K Street. Daily the inhabitants of these centers of power determined the levels of lead in the blood of children in south-central Los Angeles; the number of Chinook salmon chewed up by hydro-electric dams on the Columbia River; the gallons of dioxin flushed into the Mississippi; and the fate of such animals as the grizzly bear, whose habitat can remain protected public land or be transformed into clearcuts or cyanide-laced heap leach gold mines.
At the top of the Executive pyramid squatted Bill Clinton. His interest in environmental matters was, and had always been, opportunistic. Environmental quality and economic progress should advance hand-in-hand, Clinton counseled. If they don’t, well, there will always be time to fix the damage to the planet later.
The surest field guide to Clinton’s world comes in the form of a list of his campaign contributions through the 1980s, stretching from his successful bid for a second term as Arkansas governor in 1982, after the voters had kicked him out in 1980 following his first term. Long before Clinton hit the national spotlight (with a crashingly tedious keynote speech to the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta), the big money had its eyes on the young governor.
Badly shaken by his 1980 upset and determined never to offend corporate power again, Clinton let the word go forth: the high and mighty had a man they could trust in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock. The tycoons responded in appropriate fashion. Money flowed south from Wall Street, from the big securities firms, banks and investment houses: Merrill Lynch, Goldman, Sachs, Drexel Burnham, Citicorp, Morgan Stanley, Prudential-Bache.
Indeed the scandal that dogged Clinton through his first term—Whitewater—traced its origins to just such a collusion between Clinton and corporate money. Of the 1,070 major news stories written about the Whitewater scandal between 1992 and 1996, some 90 percent concerned themselves with the cover-up question: if or how the Clinton White House suppressed evidence in the wake of Vince Foster’s suicide. Almost all of the remaining stories dealt with the efforts of Governor Bill and the First Lady of Arkansas to keep their friend James McDougal’s Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan afloat.
All of these reports overlooked the actual origins of Whitewater, which began with a land deal. In 1978 Bill Clinton, then attorney general of Arkansas, was in the midst of his first campaign for the governship when he and Hillary, along with Jim and Susan McDougal, bought 230 acres in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. Though the title to the land was in the Clintons’ name, the couple put no money down. McDougal did not yet have the S&L, and was a financial fixer and property dealer. He fronted the money for the down payment on the loan.
The land’s previous owner-of-record was a partnership called 101 River Development, which bought it from a local business group. 101 had held the property for only three days, and went out of business a couple of weeks after the sale. The original seller of the land was International Paper, a $16 billion a year timber giant, Arkansas’ largest landowner with 800,000 acres in the state and with 7 million acres of land across the US.
International Paper’s powerful presence in Arkansas dates back to the 1950s with the arrival of Winthrop Rockefeller. The New York-based timber company had long been backed by Rockefeller interests and when Winthrop went south, the company made a similar migration and set about building up his empire in the state.
The Whitewater sale came at a time when the timber giant was following the pronouncements of candidate Clinton with keen attention. The young attorney general was vowing that as governor he would restrict the use of clearcutting on land held by the big timber companies, such as International Paper, Georgia-Pacific and Weyerhaeuser. These paper and timber companies had gone on a logging binge in the mid-1970s, clearcutting thousand-acre chunks of forest at a time. Clinton promised to introduce legislation banning the practice as soon as he entered the governor’s office.
The mysterious 101 River Development had given the Clintons and the McDougals a very good deal, selling the land for $500 an acre. Non-river front property in the area was selling at the time for nearly twice that amount.
The Whitewater sale went through in August of 1979. Clinton won the governorship in November of that year. Environmentalists eagerly awaited action from the new governor on clearcutting and other issues pertaining to the impoverished state’s very serious problems with water and air pollution. But the promises of the campaign trail soon lost their fire. Indeed Clinton’s commitment to them was pallid from the start. His two predecessors in the governor’s mansion—Dale Bumpers and David Pryor—had both tangled with the timber companies on the matter of clearcutting with a far more vigor than was ever displayed by Clinton.
The newly-elected governor formed a task force on clearcutting stocked with conservationists. The task force swiftly took heat from loggers and executives at Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific. A startled Clinton kicked off the greens and replaced them with industry hacks and recommended voluntary compliance with the soft new regulations.
In what proved to be a fatal blow, Clinton reneged on a pledge to poultry king Don Tyson of Tyson Foods. The governor refused to raise the legal weight for trucks on Arkansas highways to 80,000 pounds. In 1980, Tyson and other moneyed interest shifted their support to Republican Frank White, who soundly defeated Clinton.
After Arkansas voters turned out Clinton at the end of his two-year term, Bill left the governor’s mansion and went to work at the Little Rock law firm of Wright, Lindsey and Jennings. Hillary was at the Rose law firm. Both legal outfits represented the timber giants of Arkansas before state regulatory bodies such as the Pollution Control Board and the Department of Ecology.
Clinton recaptured the governor’s office in 1982, the same year that Jim McDougal bough Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. Among those contributing to candidate Clinton’s campaign treasury were International Paper, Georgia-Pacific and Tyson Foods. Their investment was swiftly rewarded. Clinton redux was now equipped with a philosophical approach to regulation that was highly congenial to the resource industries and to the poultry factories.
Tyson in particular became a key ally of Clinton after the latter learned his lesson from the trucking dispute. Tyson planes ferried the First Family on its travels and Tyson funds poured into Clinton’s campaign coffers.
In return, the poultry magnate received roughly $12 million worth of tax breaks during Clinton’s years as governor. Nor was Clinton diligent in monitoring the environmental record of Tyson foods or of the poultry industry in general. During Clinton’s years as governor the White River turned into a cesspool. Animal wastes from the poultry and cattle industry polluted the river so badly that 400 miles of streams became unfit for swimming. In 1983, Clinton dallied for 17 months before taking action to control damage from a Tyson plant in Green Forest, Arkansas, which, after a sinkhole developed, poured a million gallons a day of chicken waste into the water table.
The disastrous impact of Tyson’s chicken farms on the Arkansas River is fairly well-known. Less notorious but even more toxic are the pulp mills of International Paper, Georgia-Pacific and James River. International Paper’s mammoth mill at Pine Bluff was one of the most toxic in the world, venting nearly two million tons of chemicals each year into the air and water.
From 1982 forward, Clinton argued that compliance to environmental standards could best be achieved on a voluntary basis, rather than by the imposition of exigent (and politically perilous) rules and regulations. To this end Governor Clinton stacked his pollution control board with members friendly to industry. In 1985 he promoted and signed into law a huge tax break for industrial corporations of his state, including the big timber companies. This easing of the corporate fiscal burden was offset by a regressive sales tax on the citizenry.
Clinton’s big offering to the timber companies was a measure called the Manufacturer’s Investment Sales and Use Tax Credit, know by its green critics as the “IP bailout law,” after International Paper. Under this program state tax breaks were approved for more than $400 million in projects by International Paper and three other pulp and paper mills that then state Senator Ben Allen of Little Rock called “the worst corporate citizens in Arkansas”—all this in a state with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the nation and where 29 percent of the children and half of the state’s black population lived in poverty.
A few years later officials tried to keep International Paper and two Georgia-Pacific mills off a toxic waterways list, despite overwhelming evidence that they were contaminating rivers with dioxin and rendering the eating of fish from them an unacceptable cancer risk. Meanwhile, International Paper, while taking repeated advantage of the manufacturers’ sales tax credit, was ladling out money to their favorite politician, candidate Clinton.
Clinton also supervised a land deal highly favorable to the timber giants. In later years, taunted with the fact that his state ranked 48th in environmental quality, Clinton would make much of the fact that as governor he had acquired thousands of acres for state-owned forests. Two types of deals were involved here. In one set of transactions state-owned lands with profitable timber on them were swapped to the big companies in return for parcels of their land which had been recently clearcut. And, in other instances, the state simply acquired at inflated prices lands which the timber companies had recently logged off its best trees.
Nourished by these benefices, the timber companies and Don Tyson, urged Governor Clinton—then nearing the end of his third term—to consider challenging Dale Bumpers for the senate seat he had held since the early 1970s. These predacious companies had no love for Bumpers. The senator had led the charge to reform forest policies on federal lands, culminating in the passage of the National Forest Management Act of 1976.
Bumpers was also a spirited critic of clearcutting and pesticide-spraying by the timber giants in Arkansas. But by this time Clinton was already contemplating a run for the White House and so instead the timber companies, along with other corporate interests, bankrolled the Democratic Leadership Council—Clinton’s launching pad to the national scene and the presidency.
As president, Clinton performed many kindly deeds for big timber. But for International Paper, in particular, Clinton wrought two spectacular favors as president. He refused to take any action to stem the flow of raw log exports from the West Coast, where International Paper held about a half million acres of forest land. And the generous Habitat Conservation Plans in the southeast tirelessly promoted by Interior Secretary and fellow DLC alum Bruce Babbitt allowed International Paper and Georgia-Pacific to continue to cut trees on land occupied endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker.
When the Whitewater scandal finally exploded, Clinton’s attorney general Janet Reno searched for a special prosecutor and finally came up with Robert Fiske, of the law firm of Davis, Polk and Wardell. At the time, this high-powered New York law firm was also represented International Paper in pollution cases across the country, including Arkansas.
Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and Jackson Stephens are familiar pillars of the Arkansas power structure. Yet during Clinton’s years as governor, the timber companies were the most potent of the lot. Combined, International Paper, Weyerhaeuser, Georgia-Pacific and Potlach controlled more than two-and-a-half million acres of land in Arkansas and operated more than 90 timber mills.