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Editorial cartoon (5/31/2017)

The late great TV news anchor Walter Cronkite didn't get it wrong many times during his career, but there was one incident that I have always remembered.

He was discussing the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and mused about what causes all the young energized activists in the country would then pursue.

A colleague on the show responded, "The environment — that's the next  big cause." As I remember it, Cronkite responded, "The environment? Now who would oppose a cause that seeks to improve the environment?"

Well, as we soon discovered, lots of people. What Cronkite forgot was that there are powerful forces with endless bankrolls who have an interest in keeping the status quo when it involves changes that have to be made to protect the environment. And there are plenty of politicians who are eager to do their bidding.

The Trump administration's determination to roll back efforts to protect the environment are already well known. His Environmental Protection Agency director doesn't believe in the EPA, for starters. Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who made a habit of suing the agency, has already suspended dozens of regulations, reducing fines on polluters and giving gas and oil interests free rein while ignoring health and safety concerns.

Then there are Donald Trump's attacks on the century-old Antiquities Act. Presidents have used their power under the act to designate national monuments, which, in turn, has led to the creation of national parks from the Grand Canyon to Grand Teton. Trump accused former President Barack Obama of a "land grab" by designating the Bears Ears territory in Utah a national monument when, in fact, the land was already owned by the federal government. What Obama's action did was protect the land from exploitation by for-profit interests, something that all presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have done to save iconic and irreplaceable natural areas for future generations.

Unfortunately, concern for the environment and the preservation of unique natural areas isn't any better right here in Wisconsin, once the home of environmental heroes like John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson.

Since Republicans took control of the governorship and both houses of the Legislature in 2010, there's been a steady stream of legislation overturning state laws inspired by the likes of Muir, Leopold and Nelson that have served to preserve Wisconsin's beauty, kept its water and air clean, and made this state an example of environmental integrity.

Just this month, 31 GOP lawmakers asked the federal government to relax regulations on phosphorous runoff into lakes and streams, claiming it's too expensive to meet the requirements. This in face of growing problems with algae that have harmed fishing and made some of our lakes too contaminated for swimming.

The excuse is that regulation thwarts jobs and discourages companies from locating here. That's nonsense. Wisconsin had just as low unemployment and just as high new business creation under its strict environmental rules as it has now. The real motive behind the regulatory attacks is to make it easier to pad bottom lines of businesses. Legislators who benefit from big campaign contributions from these same firms are eager to help.

We now live in a state where corporations are routinely awarded permits to sink high-capacity wells in areas where the water table has been dwindling for years, where homeowners' wells are contaminated with runoff from the proliferation of megafarms, where wetlands are being filled to accommodate an out-of-state frac sand mining corporation.

The harm being done to the state's environment may not be all that noticeable now, but in years to come, all Wisconsin will pay the price.

Walter Cronkite would find it hard to believe.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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