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Steve Westly: On the environment, California must lead where Washington has failed

For five years now, the federal government has ignored looming environmental crises. Where Washington has failed, California must lead. With innovation and diligence, we can preserve the state’s natural treasures–and point the way for the world to follow. Here are the five most urgent tasks:

Stop runaway development. Residential and commercial sprawl clogs our roads, fills our open spaces, and threatens fragile ecosystems. The first thing to do is condition the use of state infrastructure money on smart development. The state provides much of the financing for the infrastructure that supports growth–everything from sewers and pipes to roads and schools. The state should dangle this “carrot” in front of local agencies and developers, requiring them to heed smart growth principles if they want state funds.

Clean up the air and target skyrocketing asthma rates. California’s Central Valley is home to some of the world’s most productive farmland–and some of its worst air pollution. California urgently needs an effective, long-term strategy to clean up our air. We can begin with two strong measures that the federal government has ignored. First, we must clean up our ports. Second, we must become a national leader in the development of clean automotive technology, such as hybrids, electric vehicles, and ethanol-based engines.

Save our dying forests. California’s forests are some of our oldest and most amazing treasures. Yet the buzz of chainsaws is never far away. Constant logging threatens the forests, as well as the ecosystems and waterways of which they’re a part.

California needs a moratorium on clear-cutting until all logging practices meet basic standards for environmental sustainability. In the interim, we should convene a scientific panel to assess the impact of logging on streams, watersheds, plant and animal species, and long-term forest health. A proper logging plan would protect old-growth forests, maintain biological diversity, rejuvenate wetlands and riparian habitats, minimize construction and road-building, monitor forest health, maintain a strict cycle of cutting, and involve the public in all major decisions.

Protect our oceans and waterways. The snow that falls pure in the Sierra is, by the time it melts and runs down the coast, toxic and polluted. Keeping our water pure should be a top priority. We should focus on four areas.

First, we should create a capital fund for expedited groundwater clean-up. Second, we must promote water conservation. Third, we must reduce toxic stormwater run-off. Fourth, we must protect our oceans by enacting a permanent ban on offshore drilling and setting aside marine preserves.

Create an urban oasis. Parkland and forests shouldn’t stop at the city’s edge. Maintaining open spaces and natural resources should be a key part of our urban agenda. We must recognize that California’s natural resources are as much a part of our infrastructure as roads and bridges. The bond should set aside money to purchase land and build urban parks. We should link these parks across major urban areas in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and elsewhere through waterways and greenbelts. Once-mighty urban rivers like the Santa Ana should be at least partially restored, and adjacent parcels of land can be bought and “greened.” Creating an urban oasis will make our communities more livable, generate economic activity, and help restore California as the paradise it should be.

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