Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 4, 2005

Pombo’s ‘joke’ costs him credibility

When I read about Congressman Richard Pombo’s proposal to sell a big chunk of this country’s national parks, I had a Tom Springer flashback.

You remember the former Gilroy mayor who caused quite a flap when he suggested building the city’s second high school at Southpoint Business Park, don’t you? (Let me note that I frequently miss Mayor Tom as a source of column fodder; to this day, I wish someone on the local political scene would coin a term like Springer’s unforgettable “bull-dickey.”) When people who had worked for years on the difficult task of finding an appropriate high school site understandably cried foul, Springer responded that his suggestion was a joke intended to point out flaws in the site selection process.

The newspaper’s editorial board correctly decried Springer’s joke suggestion as, at best, ill-timed and sophomoric, and, at worst, a taint on his credibility and a strain on relationships between the city and school district.

But back to Pombo, the Tracy-based Republican Congressman who represents the 11th District. His 285-page proposal suggests selling nearly a quarter of this country’s national park acreage, targeting the parks with low attendance figures. It also suggests that the National Parks Service sell advertising and naming rights. According to an Associated Press article, Pombo made the suggestion because “congressional committees are being told to generate savings to help Republican congressional leaders cut the deficit.” Pombo chairs the House Resources Committee, which has a target of saving $2.4 billion.

Not too surprisingly, Pombo’s proposal engendered outrage. Here’s a sampling of the reactions:

• Philip Clapp, National Environmental Trust president: “Instead of cutting pork projects, Congressman Pombo would rather sell parks and national monuments.”

• Frank Hugelmeyer, Outdoor Industry Association president: “House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo’s proposed legislation to sell 15 National Parks is an attack not only on the National Park Service, but on the very landscapes and icons that define America.”

• Jim Stratton, National Parks Conservation Association’s Alaska director: “Can you believe this Pombo guy?”

• Tom Kiernan, National Park Conservation Association president: “Congressman Pombo seems prepared to put our American heritage on the auction block, insulting the American people and tarnishing the birthright of current and future generations.”

• Jim DiPeso, Republicans for Environmental Protection policy director: “Pombo’s extremism, if turned into law, would turn our treasured national park system into a tawdry carnival of advertising and fast-buck commercialism, squandering a priceless inheritance.”

• Sacramento Bee editorial: “The whirring sound you hear is Theodore Roosevelt, the founder of our national parks and national wildlife refuge system and a Republican of a different sort, spinning in his grave.”

Pombo’s spokesman is taking a page from the Springer handbook: This proposal, all 285 pages of it, was just a joke, was supposed to make a point. What possible point could Pombo be making? That the better alternative to selling national parks is drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. The Anchorage Daily News reports that Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy said that not opening ANWR to oil drilling would lead to “outrageous and absurd alternatives, like selling national park units. So you see the joke.

Sorry, just like Springer’s high-school-in-a-business-park joke, I don’t see the humor in ANWR drilling or selling national parks. It’s a false choice. And, politically, I don’t see the wisdom in Pombo’s proposal.

Not too long ago, Pombo met with the newspaper’s editorial board. I’d done some reading ahead of time that raised concerns, but I was pleasantly surprised during our meeting. Pombo directly answered the questions we posed, rare all by itself in a politician, he didn’t rely on his staff members to provide answers, and he came across as a reasonable man. I happen to disagree with him on many issues, but he didn’t strike me as an extremist.

But by floating this proposal, Pombo has given a huge gift to his opponents: the ability to paint him as an extremist hell-bent on destroying our national parks. I cannot see how Pombo’s proposal or his Springer-like “it was a joke” spin can possibly help him win re-election in left-leaning Northern California.

If it’s a bad idea for a small-town mayor to float a joke proposal to make a political point, and it is, then it’s an order of magnitude worse for a United States Congressman, whose proposals are made on a national stage, to try this tactic. Anyone who has been in Congress since 1993 ought to know better. Credibility is hard to come by and easy to lose.

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