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Tucson Weekly Forced Justice

One Of Arizona's Greatest Environmental Champions Folds His Tent And Moves To The Beltway.

By Tim Vanderpool

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  EXPECTING A government to enforce its own laws doesn't sound so revolutionary. Then again, most folks don't live in Arizona, where, 17 years ago, a tradition of good ol' boy politics and ramshackle pollution policies sparked a one-man insurgency by the name of David Baron.

During his long stint as assistant director and lead environmental attorney at the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, Baron has waged a strategic war against dirty air, tainted water, urban sprawl and bureaucratic apathy by demanding that state and local governments go by the book.

Among the center's prime victories were a string of lawsuits in the 1980s forcing the EPA to crack down on air quality violations in Phoenix and Tucson.

Other battles squeezed higher royalties from mining companies for minerals taken from public lands, demanded closer monitoring of industrial sewer polluters in Pima County, and prodded the state to maintain its protective stewardship over Arizona's riverbeds.

Such crusades have earned Baron near iconic status among environmentalists, and grudging respect from his opponents. In what may be the supreme compliment, his tactics have also been emulated--with great success--by a new generation of activists like the Southwest Center for Biodiversity.

The attorney has also gained plenty of enemies within Arizona's growth machine--including a large cabal of Republican lawmakers overjoyed at his pending departure for Washington, D.C., where he'll assume a plum post with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

On a national level, Earthjustice operates much like the Arizona Center by monitoring the enforcement of environmental laws.

Still, any gain for Arizona's neandertholic legislators (oblivious to irony, right-wing Green Valley Rep. Bill McGibbon actually labels Baron's tactics "extreme") is clearly Arizona's loss.

On the eve of his move, Baron offers a well-honed perspective on this state's rollicking state of affairs, particularly in the atmospheric arena of clean air: "I feel really good about the progress we've made," he says, "in spite of the recent glitch in the auto emissions program."

(Careless state lawmakers failed to renew the current testing program, which expires January 1. Some of those bright lights think it should be abolished altogether).

"But we have one of the best--if not the best--auto emissions testing programs in the country," he says. "Our air quality violations have been cut back substantially from where we were when we started this work. And we've tightened up a lot of emission controls on industry. Much of this was the result of lawsuits we filed over the last 17 years, really forcing the Legislature to bite the bullet on some of these things and move ahead. Otherwise, they probably wouldn't have."

Of course, "We still have a long way to go in regards to air quality," he says. "People in Tucson don't have to be told that. We still have many days when the air is visibly filthy, and people are suffering ill health from air pollution. And yet we supposedly meet all the standards. Obviously, that means the standards are too weak."

In a parting shot, Baron plans a lawsuit demanding tougher EPA standards for particulates those bigger airborne particles largely responsible for Tucson's haze.

But he sees the need for a cultural shift beyond mere regulation. "I feel that we've failed to attack one of the major causes of air pollution in Phoenix and Tucson, which is the growth in vehicle traffic and urban sprawl," he says.

"So far, the solutions we've come up with for dirty air have primarily been technological. While I'm all in favor of cleaner cars and better technology, it's not a complete solution when you're almost doubling vehicle traffic every 10 years. Technology can't keep up with that. We're just now on the cutting edge of doing something about growth and sprawl, but we've got a long way to go."

A big leap towards long-term solutions recently stumbled badly when the Citizens Growth Management Act fell short of signatures needed to get it on November's ballot. Authored by Baron, it would have tightened the screws on leapfrog development by cities and towns. The act also would have required voter scrutiny over local general development plans, curtailing politicians' ability to court special interests by changing those plans against the public will. And in a delightful about-face, it would have stopped the habit of bleeding taxpayers to subsidize water, sewer and other improvements in new developments.

Promoted as an initiative, the act vaporized after what many viewed as an inept campaign by its supporters. Baron admits that organizers never quite got their grassroot ducks in a row. "We started too late," he says, "and when it became clear we weren't going to get enough signatures, we decided to save our money for the next election."

Instead, the state was saddled with Gov. Jane Dee Hull's much hyped--and seriously misleading--Growing Smarter plan. It was crafted by representatives from the development community, including a lobbyist for Tucson's own land-bagging nabob Don Diamond. Not surprisingly, building industry cronies now comprise the 15-member commission overseeing Growing Smarter's implementation. As a token bone for environmentalists, Baron was asked to serve on a commission advisory committee. He quickly rejected the offer.

"I thought it was pointless to be a part of it," he says. "The plan included all these provisions that most voters didn't realize, to prohibit the Legislature from adopting any meaningful statewide growth management laws. So it's a mystery to me what this commission is going to recommend that's ever going to matter."

Among other pro-development caveats, the plan forbids the Legislature from hatching any statewide, mandated growth-control measures. "The Governor admitted it was a mistake to put that language in there," Baron says. "But she doesn't control the right-wing extremists in the Legislature who are against any type of growth management.

"The real optimistic view is that if we study this issue enough, we'll come up with some sort of solution someone else hasn't thought of," he says. "But I don't think these problems still exist due to lack of studies. The shelves in this state are groaning with studies."

Ultimately, "'Growing Smarter' is a cosmetic change in the law," he says. "I don't think it's going to change the way we legislate growth. I think the only way we'll do that is through a ballot measure."

As he heads for the Beltway, Baron leaves behind a statewide population crush and abounding growth-related headaches. But he also bequeaths a legacy of groundbreaking legal tactics. After 17 years, does the steel-trap attorney still consider the law a potent ecological stick? "I certainly think it is," he says, "because the law provides objective benchmarks for measuring how well we're protecting the environment.

"By contrast, the political process is very unobjective," he says. "Even though so-called proponents of environmental laws are always talking about how they want regulation to be based on sound science, they're the same people who don't want all the regulations adopted after scientific study to be enforced.

"So, if you have to rely entirely on the political process, the special interests always manipulate it in a way--especially at a state and local level--to defeat the results that everybody agrees should be achieved."

Baron will take the same approach to his new job at Earthjustice. For example, "We might file suit to force the EPA to review and potentially adopt tougher auto emissions standards for new cars over the next two or three years," he says. "If they don't meet the deadline for that, a group like Earthjustice can sue them to adopt tougher standards, and that would affect the whole country.

"Likewise, we might work at forcing the EPA to adopt tougher water pollution standards, tougher guidelines for protecting fish and wildlife, and human health, throughout the country."

It certainly sounds familiar.

And while Baron calls his relocation bittersweet--"I'll really miss the desert"-- he says he's "looking forward to working on national issues. It's sort of time to move on."

One thing's for sure: Arizona has moved ahead--or been kept from tumbling farther backwards--thanks to the work of David Baron and the Arizona Center.

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