updated 8/27/2004 8:30:57 AM ET 2004-08-27T12:30:57

President Bush on Thursday ordered Cabinet agencies to pay more attention to private landowners, states and local governments on how to manage the environment.

That could influence federal decisions about the use of public lands, the level of protection for waterways and fighting pollution.

The executive order, bypassing congressional action, was issued by the White House without fanfare while the president campaigned in New Mexico. It is in keeping with Bush’s goal of having the government defer as much as possible to local interests. One result could be that national environmental policy is shaped more by economic pressures from local projects.

Environmentalists said the order would encourage less protection for natural resources.

'Cooperative conservation'
The order calls for more “cooperative conservation” by the departments of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The term was defined as any collaboration related “to use, enhancement and enjoyment of natural resources, protection of the environment, or both.”

The agencies were told that “to the extent permitted by law” and by available dollars, they must collaborate more with states, local and tribal governments, private for-profit and nonprofit groups, nongovernment associations and individuals.

It also requires that government “takes appropriate account of and respects the interests of persons with ownership or other legally recognized interests in land and other natural resources.”

Activists expect weaker protection
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the order was “part of the ’shrink-the-federal-safety-net’ efforts by the Bush administration.

“It’s another signal to federal agencies that they’re supposed to ignore enforcing the law and defer to local governments and landowners,” Pope said.

“It seems like another way to allow unfettered access to lands by private industries,” Rob Perks, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, praised Bush’s order. Inhofe, mayor of Tulsa, Okla., from 1978 to 1984, said he believed Bush’s approach was “something that has been needed for a long time.”

While in New Mexico on Thursday, Bush did not refer to the executive order. He did cite a new forestry law intended to reduce the threat of fires in national forests. Environmentalists say it lessens protections for old-growth trees and remote, roadless areas.

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