From: Sarah Frank, Chicago Tribune
Published December 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Cabinet-Level Committee to Oversee Ocean Policies

WASHINGTON — President Bush created a Cabinet-level committee Friday to oversee the nation's ocean and Great Lakes policies, but some environmentalists voiced concerns that the initiative could be underfunded and eventually ineffective.


Members of the panel appointed by Bush also agreed that funding ocean initiatives will be the next major environmental challenge for the president and Congress.


The Bush administration touted the move, designed to centralize decision-making on subjects as varied as research and pollution-fighting, as a major step forward for its environmental policies, which often have been harshly criticized by environmental advocates.


The new Committee on Ocean Policy will be led by James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


Bush issued the executive order creating the panel in response to recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy's report released in April. The 400-plus-page report suggested a major overhaul of ocean policy was needed to reverse decades of damage to domestic and international waters from pollution, erosion, development and over-fishing.


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As outlined in the president's order, the new committee will "provide advice on establishment or implementation of policies concerning ocean-related matters," including the Great Lakes, to the president and department heads. The committee will gather information from state, local and tribal leaders.


The chairman of the commission on Ocean Policy, retired Adm. James Watkins, said in a statement that it is too soon to know if the president's executive order will accomplish the commission's goals.


"We need to understand how the plan addresses the multitude of recommendations made by the commission as well as the availability of funding to support these activities," he said.


Funding won't be determined until Congress and the president begin planning for the 2006 fiscal year budget.


Some environmentalists fear that without adequate funding the reorganization will have little effect.


"Honestly, a lot of us in the ocean conservation community are concerned that the bulk of this response is largely window dressing," said Buffy Baumann, an ocean advocate with U.S. PIRG, a liberal advocacy group. "Unfortunately, money talks and in January we'll see the president's budget and how serious he is about protecting and conserving our oceans."


The commission's report contained 212 recommendations, one of which was to create a $4 billion government trust fund to pay for ocean initiatives over four years. Some commissioners said Friday they had not seen the president's plan and did not yet know how many of their specific recommendations would be implemented.


Some in the environmental community said they are "cautiously optimistic" about Bush's plans. While the ocean advocates said they were impressed that the administration appears to support reversing ocean damage, they voiced concern that its efforts won't go far enough.


The National Resources Defense Council said the president's plan "does not match the seriousness of the problems plaguing our oceans."


Sarah Chasis, director of the council's coastal and water program, added, "Creating a Cabinet-level committee is a good idea, but we need a specific presidential directive to the committee to implement a policy that will restore and protect our oceans. Right now there is no clear mandate for the committee."


The committee will include Cabinet secretaries as well as members of the Marine Mammal Commission, NASA and the National Science Foundation.


Connaughton said the committee will improve communication between the White House and Congress on matters relating to oceans, coral reefs and the Great Lakes.


Great Lakes issues -- mainly strategies to control pollution and invasive species -- will be led in part by state and local leaders, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.


In 2002, Daley created the Great Lakes Cities Initiative to address such issues as pollution and runoff.


"I think Washington is really looking to Mayor Daley as a major leader on Great Lakes issues," said David Ullrich, executive director for the Chicago initiative. "We felt very strongly that it was important to get a local perspective brought to all the various Great Lakes decision-making tables and it is obvious that is happening."


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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