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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange considers the protection of our natural environment the most important political issue to be addressed for the foreseeable future.

(Lange) President Ronald Reagan, it is said, made the political environment safe for conservatives. But that’s not all that began to change during his tenure. His first Secretary of the Interior was James Watt, an avowed foe of environmentalism. “We don’t have to protect the environment,” he joked. “The Second Coming is at hand.” Luckily, after only two years, he made a distasteful remark in a speech, and was obliged to retire to his ranch.

However, at the moment we appear to be continuing to dismantle regulations that stand between us and possibly irreversible environmental degradation. Those of us who were fisherman fifty years ago remember that many of our rivers were virtually open sewers. The Clean Air Act and, a little later, the Clean Water Act both promised improvement – though critics hinted darkly at an epidemic of corporate bankruptcies.

The bankruptcies haven’t occurred, and our rivers are cleaner. But the fish we catch in this beautiful part of the world are unsafe to eat because of mercury pollution from Midwestern power plants. The Northeast states are suing their own government to enjoin it to enforce its own rules. Meanwhile, we play a shell game with emissions limits, and the mercury continues to rain down.

Many environmental regulations are promulgated by men and women in air-conditioned meeting rooms. Their kids don’t suffer from pollution-induced asthma, their friends in industry don’t labor under onerous restrictions, and gasoline prices are irrelevant to them except as a political consideration. They need to sit down to a few meals of native trout, washed down with tall glasses of water from the well of one of Erin Brockovich’s clients.

There’s no longer any doubt the earth is warming catastrophically. The folks in the air-conditioned meeting rooms are waiting on “the science,” and some public pressure, before acting to address the problem. I mentioned one morning at a kaffeeklatsch with somewhat conservative members, that because of ocean warming, salt water levels are beginning to rise. “You mean,” challenged one of them, “that Florida is going to be underwater?”

Yes, matter of fact, it is. The first act has already begun: encroachment of salt water on the freshwater aquifer, making future residence impossible or prohibitively expensive.

The collective will of enough people still could at least mitigate the problems, but it’s not likely. Too many of us are comfortable and co-opted. Lake Umbagog, on the Maine-New Hampshire border, used to be a famous landlocked salmon fishery. I asked the owner of a marina, “Don’t you mind the loss of the salmon?”

“You see all them bass boats out there?” he said. “Those guys spend ten times as much on gas and groceries and beer as salmon fishermen ever did!” He’s right, of course; and before much longer, the pristine glory that the lake used to be will exist only in history books.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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