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Hayes gives spark to energy forum

Even a bear’s drinking habits can take on political meaning in an election year.

“I’ve read an interesting development in the papers,” Rep. Jay Inslee said as he took the stage Sunday at the Bainbridge Island High School auditorium. “There’s a black bear who had consumed 34 beers and was found passed out in a campgrounds in the Cascades.”

A smile crept across Inslee’s face as his listeners waited for the punch line.

“I find it interesting that the Bush Administration had just eliminated the Roadless Rule,” he said, referring to a Clinton-era forest protection plan. “And now, a week later, we have bears stumbling drunk in our forests.”

The school’s 250-capacity auditorium erupted with laughter, as Inslee joined Earth Day founder Denis Hayes for an environmental and energy policy forum organized by the 23rd Legislative District Democrats.

Both speakers began their talks with lighthearted jabs at the Bush Administration. Hayes, who is credited with launching the modern environmental movement in 1970, recited from a list of Bush allies’ worst gaffes.

House Leader Tom DeLay’s labeling of a Nobel Prize committee as “Swedish environmental extremists” and the Environmental Protection Agency as “the Gestapo” of government earned Hayes a roomful of howls and snickers.

But their levity quickly gave way to dark forecasts over time marked not in four-year terms, but geologic epochs.

“The deficit is something we’ll work our way out of,” the 1st District Democrat said. “And someday we’ll be out of the trouble in Iraq. But our environmental problems have the potential to be permanent.

“In modern times we’ve seen dioxide levels take a vertical jump, from a geological perspective. This is an unprecedented occurrence not in human history, but in world history.”

Inslee, campaigning for reelection this year, urged listeners to support the New Apollo Energy Project he is spearheading in Congress.

The project aims to make the U.S. a world leader in clean energy technology and break the country’s dependence on foreign oil; President Kennedy’s Apollo space project serves as the inspiration for the modern effort.

“John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon and Americans rose to the challenge,” Inslee said. “Kennedy understood the genius of Americans when they have a national goal.”

While the project might seem “pie in the sky,” Inslee said the country has achieved similar feats of energy conservation in the past. The U.S. was a world leader in fuel efficiency in the late 1970s but “fell off the wagon” when Ronald Reagan was elected, he said.

“We now have more horsepower than in 1975 but worse fuel efficiency,” Inslee said.

Hayes also harkened back to the 1970s when many landmark environmental rules were passed.

He warned that the Bush administration is weakening many regulations, including the Clean Air Act, with alterations that few hear about. The administration has made it easy for electrical plants built before 1970 to avoid upgrading to cleaner technologies and has allowed industry to redefine the term “toxic” for many materials, he said.

For all their partisan talk, the speakers said cross-party cooperation for environmental protection is possible. Hayes credited Republicans Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt’s pioneering efforts in conservation and GOP support of the Clean Water Act.

Before modern Republicans and Democrats can cross the aisle for substantial environmental policy change, a “robust defeat” of Republican leadership is required, Hayes said.

“We need to throw out an entire generation of leadership,” he said.

Both strongly endorsed Sen. John Kerry’s bid for the White House.

“There’s zero doubt Kerry can be one of the great ones, the kind that can be on Mt. Rushmore,” Hayes said.

Inslee said the effort to unseat Bush and promote environmental protections must move beyond the party faithful gathered in the auditorium.

“We’re the choir, and we sing pretty well here,” he said. “But I want us to take these issues out to those not already with us.”

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