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John Bryant

INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 26, 2000
LOCATION: Dallas, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2130

Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas and we’re in Dallas, Texas on October 26, the year 2000. And we’re at John Bryant’s law offices in downtown Dallas and we’re here to interview Mr. Bryant about his contributions to conservation, both as the state legislator and as a federal Congressman representing the Dallas area. And I wanted to thank him for taking the time to talk to us.
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JB: I’m—I’m proud that you would want to interview me.
DT: I thought we might start with a question about where your interest in conservation might have begun, if there was an experience in your early days, some sort of event or trip or person that might have introduced you to the outdoors and environmental protection.
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JB: Well I grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas which is a town on the Texas coast that did not exist until 1943. So when I was born, which was in 1947, this town was I think about a hundred houses and it was still being hewn out of the forest and this was a real jungle, much different than most of the rest of Texas. It’s a beautiful area, it was and is still a beautiful area but, in order to build the houses that everybody lived in, they had to tear the trees down and clear the land. And I remember as a child, of course, playing in the woods, it was—the woods were all around us. We played in them all the time and I remember very much as a child not liking it when the woods were being bulldozed. It just seemed like a—like a bad thing, just basic—just an innate feeling that it wasn’t a good thing to be pushing these great big trees down. And, of course, in those days, they were tearing down enormous oak trees, just the most fantastic trees you’ve ever seen to—to build the neighborhoods that we all lived in. And I lived in oh, four or five different homes in—in Lake Jackson during my life. My parents built two homes in that town when I was a youngster and then later built a third one when I was long gone off to college. So I saw all of this and what I’m really proud of my hometown and—and still love going there, my mother and dad still live there, I was always uncomfortable about the destruction of the forest and I saw it first hand and I participated in it as a kid. I was also a Boy Scout. We had a great Boy Scout troop at the Methodist Church. In fact, we had two of them and we had great adult leadership. And the adult leaders had us camping once a month so I camped at least once a month as a kid from the time I was about eleven years old until I finished scouting sometime in my teens. And I was an Eagle and took it all real seriously as did a lot of my friends. And so we were out in the outdoors all the time. It wasn’t only being out in the outdoors and loving the outdoors, it was also I think being taught the ethic of conservation that comes along with being a—a Boy Scout. I remember my Eagle project was to build a—a—a series of barriers that were designed to erode, or rather prevent erosion. We lived on Oyster Creek and so I built this—this barrier in a place where the water ran off from the other side of the creek down into the creek. I’m sure it did very little good for the universe, but in the process of it, learned a little bit about conservation but it was—that was just part of scouting all the way from the earliest time to the very end. So that was a big part of—of my growing up and maybe part of just growing up in this part of the country anyways, having a lot of respect for the outdoors. I think I just took that off to—to my adult life with me, it started there. If—if you can ever point to where anything starts, that’s where that started with me.
DT: Could you maybe talk a little bit about your introduction to the—some of the political aspects of life and the political side of the environmental protection.
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JB: Well I went to…
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JB: Well I went to college at SMU [Southern Methodist University] and I went off to college in 1965 and around that time, emphasis on—on the environment was becoming more and more pronounced in public life. I was still not awake to anything like politics at that time and I was—let me say it another way, I was aware of it and I liked to argue about it with everybody but I wasn’t active in any way. But about midway through my college career, I became active and Ned Fritz was an individual in—in Dallas who was a—a lawyer who had decided to stop practicing law for a living and lived off the money he’d already made and devote all of his time to environmental activities. So Ned was busy as I recall trying to stop a plant nearby here—here that was polluting the air with lead and the neighborhood with lead and doing a variety of things. And I joined up with him, I’ve forgotten what he called his group even but I became one of his minions running around town helping him—helping him do things. In 1968, I believe, possibly later, must have been later because I think Nixon was president already by the time this happened. There was something called the Student Council on Pollution and Environment that had been put together by the Nixon administration, which I later came to view, most of us did as sort of a way to give an outlet to a lot of complaining about the environment but not be obligated to do very much. And I was—Ned got me appointed to this so I—I actually traveled to Washington one time and traveled to a conference out in Essex Park, Colorado and began taking a little bit of a leadership role in some of these environmental activities. My focus though personally was always a little more broadly on politics in general after that. And the—the environment was always a central part of that along with civil rights and—and at that time in Texas, reform of our government because our Legislature in those days was—let me say it this way, it—it lacked reform. I guess that’s one way to put it.
DT: [inaudible]
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JB: Yeah.
DT: I understood that you were elected to the Legislature in the, I guess it would be the ‘70s, is that correct?
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JB: In 1972, I was the campaign manager for a state Senate candidate, he was running as—on a reform ticket for the state Senate, named Ron Clower. And Ron won the election that year. I, in the process, learned the mechanics of—of elections. I went to Austin with him in January of 1973 as a new—brand new lawyer and as his administrative assistant and became chief counsel to his subcommittee on consumer affairs. And—and about November of that year learned that a state representative in whose district about half of it was in the Senate district was a—about to pass away and, in fact, he did pass away. And I ran for his seat on a shoestring and had a lot of volunteers from Ned Fritz’s group, people who were concerned about the environment knew we needed lawmakers that were concerned about it as well. And I was elected in a special election in 1974.
DT: And were environmental concerns on the docket, on the agenda for the session when you first joined the legislature?
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JB: Well when I joined the legislature, the constitutional convention was in progress which is a—a one of a kind event in which the legislature was sitting as a convention of delegates to rewrite the state con—constitution. I do not recall them, but I can say with confidence that in that constitutional convention, we dealt with every imaginable issue because when you’re rewriting a constitution, that’s what happens. But I was a member of the legislature, sitting as a legislature by—by 1975 or the following year. And there were environmental issues every year.
DT: Were there any major ones that you can recall?
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JB: Well as I—I recall only that there were—it seems to me there were fights over the standing of citizens to bring lawsuits. There were some fights over some projects it seems to me that were threatening. But that’s been a long time ago. It’s been twenty-five years ago so I’m—I don’t recall specific battles in the legislature. With a little prompting I’d probably recall the whole episode but I just don’t recall the—the fights that we fought.
DT: Were there some discussions about water projects during the mid-70’s?
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JB: Yes that’s a good—good prompt. We did have a great big thing called the Texas Water Plan. I recall that, and it was put together, as I recall it, without any attention at all being paid to the environment. It was put together by folks who still pretty much thought that you could dam up any river or impound water in any fashion and not ha—not have any consequences for the environment or for other people’s way of life. And I remember that we did fight that thing very hard. I believe that it made it to the ballot and, in fact, was passed by the voters. I do recall participating in an effort to try to stop it from being passed. I th—I think I’ve got my chronology right, this may have even happened before I was in the legislature but I do recall that we had an argument about that.
DT: Maybe you can bring us even closer up to date. You were subsequently elected to a seat in Congress in the, I guess the early ‘80s?
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JB: In 1982, the incumbent, Congressman Jim Mattox ran for Attorney General. I ran for the vacant seat that his departure created and was elected and went to Congress in January of 1983.
DT: Perhaps you can walk us through some of the environmental concerns that you met there when you served in Washington.
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JB: Well initially I introduced, at the urging of Ned Fritz but, of course, with great enthusiasm, the—the Texas Wilderness Bill, which had been a goal of the environmentalists in Texas for a long time to set aside for permanent protection, key areas in the national forests in East Texas. We had uphill sledding of course. There wasn’t widespread support for it in the Congressional delegation. The incumbent Congressman, Charles Wilson, who is a great guy but at the time was representing, as he felt was appropriate, the economy of the area and was concerned about the impact of any legislation like this on the timber industry which employed people in his region. So we had a—a—a hard row to hoe in getting that bill to—out of committee where—to where it might see the light of day. We worked on it however diligently. Ned came to town, he would camp out in my office and bring his helpers with him. And John Seiberling of Ohio was the chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the matter and did a great job of—of pushing against those who were resisting in—in helping. And I was new enough to be enthusiastic and not be afraid to introduce a bill relating to property in somebody else’s district, which is not what—what you’re typically supposed to do there. But the stars just kind of lined up for us. We managed to get that bill passed and ultimately we set aside just under forty thousand acres of wilderness in the—in those east—east Texas forests. In—in—a—a—a—an act which is really vintage Ned Fritz, Ned informs me that they’re going to name the champion shag bark hickory tree after me and it—down there. And so I go down there one weekend and we have a big ceremony and he names the champion shag bark hickory the John Bryant shag bark hickory. Now, of course, he had zero authority to do this and I’m sure that, accept for that ceremony, nobody in the whole world would ever know it was ever done but Ned was really great at—at—and is—still is really great at—at promoting a point of view and creating enthusiasm and finding ways to symbolize people’s work.
DT: In pressing that particular bill, it sounds like jobs and the environment were pitted against one another. What sort of trade offs do you think were made or do you think that those are opposing forces?
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JB: Well, I mean, jobs in the environment are always the debate. People frequently argue against forest preservation and against clean air and clean water on the basis that if you do too good a job of that that you’ll cause people to lose their jobs. I mean, that’s fundamental of the environmental debate all the time. In this case, there was concern about it. Thirty seven thousand plus acres or somewhere just under forty thousand, I’ve forgotten the exact number, is a tiny area of wilderness. It’s a whopper by Texas standards because we’ve had such a virtually completely pro-industry political establishment in our state for so long that almost—very, very little has—has been able to be achieved compared to what’s been achieved in, let’s say, California or many other states. So we were, of course, delighted with this—with this wilderness area. But the debate over it related to, was the area worth preserving, what should the boundaries be, and the arguments all surrounded where you should draw the pencil. In other words, what areas should be drawn inside of the—of the areas to be preserved.
DT: You mentioned that the wilderness bill set aside acres that are very valuable for Texas because there aren’t so many areas that have been protected in Texas because of the sort of heritage of a more pro-business climate that we’ve had here. I was wondering if you could speculate about why and how the politics of Texas have generally trended away from conservation?
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JB: Well, I think you’ll find in all the southern states that the—the legislatures have been dominated by a business lobby for a long time with a few interregnums where there was progress possible. One of those was in 1973 when an enormous reform was passed the legislature and there were many of those that improved again in ’75. But, generally speaking, the business lobby has had its way in—in almost all areas. That’s the case in Texas. We’re not—we’re both a southern and a western state and the fact of the matter is that political campaigns are run with money and the forces that have money can make it possible for you to win or lose. And even the best member of the legislature or even the Congress from Texas, when they run, they’ve got to raise money. So they end of having to make compromises to put together a coalition to win. Those compromises are—manifest themselves in the legislation when you begin to write law. The environment has always been a very popular issue, that is to say, the public is on the side of clean air, clean water, and—and forest preservation. The polls of the forest issues, for example, are off the charts in favor of forest preservation. The problem I think has been that the public is not given the information it needs to know what really is going on. I believe if they knew about clear cutting, they would be outraged. Some people do know about it and some people are outraged. But most people assume that a national forest, for example, is a—is a preserve when, in fact, a national forest is being managed by a forest service who’s focused on managing it for timber production. And they’re clever, they leave a little barrier along the highway so people don’t become offended and don’t see what’s going on behind the barrier. The public votes it heart only when it knows what’s going on and it doesn’t know what’s going on and the big bucks are being put into these campaigns that skew the decisions being made by the legislature and the Congress.
DT: Maybe you can give us an example of how these tensions play out in your effort to get the forest biodiversity bill passed, which I guess it hasn’t really made headway as a rule.
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JB: Well the—the—the forest biodiversity bill began simply as a ban on clear cutting, as a—as a forest management practice. I introduced it. It was referred to the agriculture committee and to Congress, which has jurisdiction over the national forest. It was focused on a b—the bill banned clear cutting on a national forest and the federal forestlands. The—the agriculture committee is typically filled with members of Congress from agricultural states fro—that—that produce food and fiber. They’re conservative, even the Democrats on the committee are usually pretty conservative and getting them to do anything that makes industry uncomfortable is very, very hard. It’s, in fact, impossible most of the time. So a bill which said, “Look, less than five percent of our nation’s wood supply comes off of the federally owned forests and since you and I own the federally owned forest and there—the—these properties are the taxpayers’ to be managed in a way that which they want, let’s pass a bill saying you can’t clear cut.” It didn’t even say you can’t harvest. It didn’t say you can’t selection manage—manage where you could take a tree here, a tree there but never destroy a forest. It just simply said we can’t do clear cutting anymore. Even that bill, while we managed to get a coup—hearing on the bill in two different sessions of Congress, never could get a vote in the subcommittee. Now when you did a poll on that issue, you’d find the voters supported that, a ban on clear cutting, by margins of eight and nine to one but you couldn’t get a vote on it in the subcommittee.
DT: What sort of reactions would you get from representatives when you tried to introduce the idea of supporting this bill?
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JB: Well the—the members of the—well we had a number of cosponsors on the bill, quite a few, but the—the members of the agriculture committee would talk—basically repeat to us in—in our hearings the timber industry line. They would ask the questions which were the same ones wh—which reflected the point of view of the lobbyists for the timber companies. And they ask, “Well isn’t it more healthy for the forest to clear cut and let it regrow” and things like that, which the average person would hear these questions and think this is the world turned upside down. How can you ask if—if clear cutting is healthy for the forest? Clear cutting eliminates the forest entirely. And they have over the years promoted these illogical and scientifically baseless ideas that somehow clear cutting is necessary for the overall long-term health of the forest because clear cutting is the cheapest way for them to harvest this—this wood. The other thing that’s happened is that the—the forest industry has, through grants to universities and other ways as often happens in American industry at lar—in general, managed to skew scientific research and—and managed to—to promote the production of reports and—and “studies” which support what it wants that are not objectively conducted. And, course, now, and this interview is being given in the year 2000, clear cutting is now out of favor. But for years, sort of like the tobacco company saying, “Cigarettes are not addictive and they’re not going to hurt you.” For years the tobac—the—the timber industry said, “Oh, clear cutting is absolutely necessary in order to have a healthy forest,” in order to—and in order to operate in the most economically productive way. Well that’s just what went on.
DT: Maybe we can bring you up to some of your last terms in Congress and particularly what happened in 1994 when Republicans took the majority and they introduced the contract with America and as part of that I think tried to repeal some of the environmental protections that had been won over the last twenty years or so.
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JB: Well, in 1994, I might say that in that legislative year, that was an election year, the Democrats were still in the majority. A bill had been brought to the floor relating to the Montana wilderness, which was a good bill. But they had failed to write a rule to prohibit amendments. So noticing this at the last minute, I went to the floor with the anti-clear cutting measure with no notice. We did not have time to lobby. We did the best we could do with just a short amount of notice and argued it in a very short debate because the time limits would not permit a lengthy debate. And got a, I think, about a hundred and forty-five votes for that with no notice at all. As far as I know, that’s the only time that matter has ever come to the floor of the House or the Senate. But it emboldened us to believe that we could have success with a—a bill because, with virtually no notice, we got that many votes and that was without the votes of some of the finer environmental members on the floor who, while supporting what we were doing, had agreed to vote for the Montana Wilderness Bill without amendments in order to get it out of committee and
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therefore were honor bound not to vote for us. So we had—we knew we had even more support than—than the numbers reflected. So that was an encouraging thing but I think it says a lot that as late as 1994 in the United States of America, we could not have a serious debate on the floor of the Congress with regard to the health of the forest that are owned by the tax payers. We’re not talking about private property here, we’re talking about publicly owned property. I don’t know if I said in that debate or not, but I have said it often in subsequent debates like that one, that in the late 1980’s, I—I went to Brazil with then Senator Tim Worth and the late Senator John Heinz and then Senator Al Gore, along with Gerry Sikorski a hou—a member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota and we went to the—to the Amazon. And we traveled through the provincial—rather the—the outlying provincial capitals of the country of Brazil looking at the destruction of the rain forest. We flew over it, we could see the burning and we talked to the people on the ground about it, we talked to the natives who made a living out of the forest as it existed and were being ruined by the destruction of it. And then after this was over, this was a lengthy trip, ten days or more, we flew back into Brasilia and met with the President of Brazil and proceeded to tell him how he should be managing the forests in Brazil because we were so offended by what was going on there. And he asked us, “Well tell me how do you manage the forests in the United States, what’s your policy?” And, of course, our answer had to be that, well, we’re cutting in the national forests as well. Not just talking about private land here, we’re talking about federally owned forestland owned by the taxpayer they’re being clear cut. So I—I offer
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that anecdote because I’ve utilized it so many times in arguing for protection of our—of our nationally owned forests. In 1994, when I—I was able to offer that amendment on the floor, even that late in our country’s history and even with the kind of things happening like I described in the Amazon, we still weren’t able to do anything more than rely upon our serendipitous good fortune to even be able to bring the matter up on the floor of the House. So that’s how far behind we have been, I think, where we should be with regard to forest preservation. Now, in 1994, the elections went against the Democrats. It was the only close race I had during the time I was in Congress but I was reelected and I went back in ’95. The—a severely partisan and extremist faction of the Republican Party had the majority in the Republican caucus. They were led by Newt Gingrich. He was elected speaker and they proceeded on an ideological binge that year that was really unprecedented in our history I think. It was like religious zealotry, it had nothing to do with logic, it had to do with pursuing an ideology. I think it was a lesson for the country because, of course, Gingrich is no more and he’s not—you don’t find him in any campaign pictures with any other Republican candidates today. They do all they can to distance themselves from him and the Republican candidate for president this year is, of course, trying as hard as he can not to be associated with the par—extreme—extreme views and extreme activities of—of those kind of Republicans. Although I will say the same guys are still in charge of the Republican caucus in the Congress, but they were not allowed to play any part in the Republican convention where they might be seen on TV I noticed. Those kinds of guys proposed a—a whole series of things that were very destructive and actually did achieve some very destructive things during the time that they were in power. They are still in the majority as we speak. We’re doing this interview about twelve days before the—the year 2000 elections and who will be in charge in the future we’ll know pretty soon.
DT: Can you maybe give us your thoughts about why the Republicans have not seen the environment as one of their issues considering that Nixon signed the EPA into being and even George Bush, the elder, signed the Clean Air Act of 1990, I mean, there have been some interests. Teddy Roosevelt of course was a leading environmentalist of his time.
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JB: Well, it’s—it is a logical thing for the Republicans to embrace the Teddy Roosevelt legacy. Of course Roosevelt later ran as—on the bull moose ticket, having lost patience with his party. But my attempts to promote the forest biodiversity act with Republican members by urging them to embrace their Rooseveltian—Teddy Rooseveltian heritage have met with limited success. I think that it may meet with more success in the future but the—the fact of the matter is that the Republican Party, far more than the Democratic party, has always been the party that represents the—the big corporations and economic institutions in the status quo in this country. Richard Nixon did—does deserve credit for the environmental—helping the Environmental Protection Agency come into being early in his presidency. Of course, there was a Democratic Congress in both Houses at that time and I don’t know what role he actually—the president actually played in lobbying it through. The same was true in the ‘70s or later on when clean water legislation came through. When the Democrats were willing to act, environmental measures were very, very popular with the public and Republicans rarely want to get caught out in the open
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unclothed, vetoing or fighting against popular environmental measures. So they will do all that they can to keep them in committee or keep them bottled up somewhere so you don’t have to have the debate and then when everything, finally all the forces come together and force them to have the debate, they then come up with weak substitutes which are environmentalism in form but not in substance. That’s consistently been the case over the years and I think reflects the fact that the Republican Party in our—in our history has always been the party of the wealthy and the party of the big corporations that almost always line up against every environmental measure predicting catastrophe if we pass these bills. Whether you’re talking about clean air legislation from the ‘70s when we finally began getting—forcing Detroit to begin making cleaner cars, a debate, by the way, which continued all the way through my period of time of—period of time in Congress in the ‘80s and ‘90s that we had these clean air emission standards debates over and over. They always lobby against them, they always use all their power to try to stop them and they always claim that they’ll be a—an economic catastrophe if we pass them. Finally they get passed, there’s no economic catastrophe, they make their engines a little cleaner, the environment gets better and they then use the fact that the environment got better as the argument against the next environmental measure saying that, “Well, because of us things got better.” Well, that’s because they were forced to make things better.
DT: I had one more sort of career-oriented question. I understand that after you left the Congress that you returned to your profession as an attorney and I think you were telling me earlier that you’ve been doing some toxic tort suits and I’m curious if you could tell a little bit about that kind of work and maybe give an example of a case that’s been interesting.
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JB: Well pri—actually possibly more relevant to the interview is—and I’d be hap—I love to talk about that too, is the fact that in my last year in Congress, I introduced a Native Forest Biodiversity Act which was an act put together by Ned Fritz, modified by Carl Ross, Save America’s Forest, and introduced to set—to state that we ought to have a national policy for the management of the national forest rather than lurching from one movement to the next but have a completely new policy. I mean, that policy would be that, number one, no clear cutting as a management tool on the national forests. Number two, it would set aside over a hundred areas that are the core areas of the forest around the country and say, “You can’t touch those but you can continue to do commercial logging, called selective logging, in the perimeter areas but only to a very, very limited extent.” And number three, the forest service mandate would change so that its mandate would no longer be to manage the forest for harvesting but to manage the forest instead for the preservation of native biodiversity. It was a cleaver—cleverly designed bill because it was designed to appeal to those members of Congress who cannot go home and say, “We’re for zero cutting in the national forest” but can go home and say, “We are conservationists, we believe in only as much cutting as will allow the forest to continue to exist.” And this bill reflected exactly the theory as written by Dr. E.L. Wilson of Harvard, he was I think the preeminent biologist of this half of the century and he endorsed the bill. But I—I introduced it. Now, like a lot of things I did including that wilderness bill back in the early ‘80s, these things were done by environmentalists, they were created by them, they were worked on by them. I was glad to introduce them and be the advocate of them but they were not my ideas. They were the ideas of people that
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worked in the environmental movement, volunteers, people that gave their time for free and worked on these things, people like Ned Fritz and Carl Ross and others. That needs to be said because that is lost often in the analysis of what’s gone on in the past. All of these initiatives came from private groups, from environmental groups, from—sometimes supported by foundations in order to do studies to determine which areas must be preserved. There’s a lot of courage exhibited in legislative forms like Congress and legislatures to fight for the right things. But the only way they know what to do is—is by talking to the environmentalists and the people that really love this mission and—and are willing to de—dedicate an enormous amount of uncompensated time to—to developing these—this legislation. When I left Congress in 1997, I served as U.S. Ambassador in charge of our satellite and spectrum allocation negotiations, our treaty negotiations in Geneva and then returned to private life in January of 1998. That year, I began lobbying for this same act with a group called Save America’s Forest. You know, for the last couple of years I’ve worked hard for them to try to build support and actually we’ve gotten nearly a hundred and forty cosponsors for this bill, which I think is, again, a—a statement of—of the kind of work that Carl Ross and Ned Fritz and many others have done over the years. I helped them explain it, helped them get in to see the members of Congress to promote it and—and I think it has a good future. You ask about litigation,
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my biggest contribution, post-Congress, to the environment has been to help Save America’s Forest with that legislation. The kind of toxic tort litigation you’re talking about is—is litigation involving people who’ve been exposed to activities of big companies that have contaminated their water or contaminated the ground and that they have contracted disease as a result of it. These are private lawsuits who have private litigants so I’m not really able to discuss them in any detail right now but I—I’m proud of doing that kind of work and—but I’m—I think the work really is counted in terms of the big picture has been the work I’ve done in Congress, in the legislature and then after Congress helping groups like Save America’s Forest.
DT: I certainly respect the confidentiality. Maybe you could talk a little bit about tort reform which I think has been a controversy that’s been going on for a number of years in this state and nationally.
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JB: Well tort reform is, very simply, the effort of a—a lot of rich, powerful people to try to further stack the deck in their favor as if it wasn’t already much in their advantage so that average people can’t sue them, that’s all that it is. There’s not one single objective study that indicates that there is a growing number of lawsuits, that there is—or that the verdicts are larger than they used to be. All the studies, and they’ve done—been done by groups like the Rand Corporation indicate quite the opposite, that the growth in the number of lawsuits are a growth in the number of commercial lawsuits between businesses. They’re not individuals filing personal injury cases against big companies and they’re not lawsuits by environmentalists who are trying to stop some type of destruction of a forest or prevent pollution of the air or the water. There are suits like that. There are constant efforts in every legislature and in the Congress to roll back the clock and try to prevent private persons from taking action in this—in this area. That’s—the private or right of action to protect the environment has been an ongoing debate for thirty years, industry always opposing it and environmentalists always being in favor of it. Tort reform is designed, it—it’s again, it’s not a reform, it’s designed to make it hard or economically impossible also for litigants to bring lawsuits because their individual damages are very small one at a time but very large as a group. So, in Texas, we’ve seen a Supreme Court that has prescribed class actions to such an extent that they’re very, very difficult to bring, at least as of this date, even though they were designed in the law in the first place to right a wrong which has damaged thousands and thousands of people perhaps, but any one of whom would not be able to successfully, by themselves, afford to bring a claim. So all these are just designed to stop individuals from—from being able to bring these cases and to prevent juries from being the ones to make decisions. That’s—that’s a good part of tort reform has also been to place more and more of the authority for these decisions, for example, with regard to the use of expert witnesses, in the hands of the judges, not the juries. And I don’t think it’s any secret that, in Texas, we elect our judges. They have to run for office and raise campaign funds like anybody else who’s running for public life—running for public office or in public life and that includes our supreme court.
DT: You’ve worked on both habitat wildlife issues in your work on forest protection and also on contamination and public health issues for your toxic tort. Could you maybe look into the future and tell us what you foresee as being the big environmental challenges facing us?
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JB: Well, the environmental challenge that no one has been willing to deal with, at any level, is population growth. Zero population growth and organization in Washington D.C. does a good job of main—maintaining the statistics and trying to get the word out. They’re under funded, they need a lot more money. Our advances in protecting the air and the water and our forests, our environment in general, are going to be wiped out entirely if we don’t do something about the rapid growth in rural population. I have been surprised to see—I have been surprised that we’ve not seen a—a more robust public dialog about that and I think you’re going to see that emerge as a—as a huge en—environmental issue. The other one, of course, is global warming which is an outgrowth of population which is due, of course, to industrial output and automobile emissions and all the other things that we all do and—and I’m as guilty as the next. I’m just a regular old American consumer, you know, driving a car and—and running that air conditioner all the time and I think we’re all going to have to come to grips with that. Maybe the price of energy will cause some of this to stop, but when you read in the paper as we read last week that a—a—a whole city in the southern part of Chili has been warned now that the ozone layer has receded to the point that they are no longer protected by it, there’s—that’s just the beginning, I think, of what can become a world-wide catastrophe if we don’t begin to deal with it. It’s going to take a lot of courage to deal with it. Again, American industry has strenuously argued that global warming is a myth, it’s not true, it’s
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not scientifically based, we should not be trying to reduce emissions into the atmosphere. The attempts at Kyoto to—to put together a treaty that would—by which all countries would agree to reduce their emissions to deal with this problem, the U.S. role in that was attacked vigorously by the Republicans and by American industry, claiming that we were being put at a disadvantage relative to other countries and that the whole thing was some type of an ill-conceived starry-eyed concept that was unnecessary. I will say that in—it seems to me that in the last twelve months, fewer people on the right wing side of our political spectrum have been willing to come forward and attack those that are trying to do something about global warming because it’s—I think it’s becoming apparent to people that indeed we do have a serious problem. But it’s going to take political leadership to deal with it, whether we deal with it will depend on the elections that are going to take place here in a couple of weeks. And if the Republicans win the—the progress made will be very slow.
DT: Do you have any advice for younger people who are interested in the environment to try and further progress on problems like these?
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JB: Yes, I urge them to—to devote as much time to it as they can. I urge them to get involved in environmental organizations but they must also be involved in politics. It would be so much easier, and I could be so much more popular if I didn’t emphasize the political aspect of this because, at this particular time in our history, people don’t want to hear talk about the need for—for political challenges. They don’t want to hear arguments. They don’t like to hear partisan analysis. My comments about the Republican Party, if I were on TV right now in—on the airways, you know, just the evening news, would not be well-received because people don’t like to hear a partisan analysis because they’ve been led to believe that somehow or another partisan differences are—have been a problem for the country. But the fact of the matter is, you’ve got to deal with reality and while the Democrats, while they are in the majority, are slower than we should have been, no question about it, many of us were pushing to go faster, others were dragging their feet. The Democratic party in this particular epic in our history has been the one to author all the—the environmental advances and push them forward and they have been reluctantly accepted usually by Republican presidents and Republican members of the House and Senate with some exceptions. And I’ve got to say that there have been some good members of the Republican Party who’ve been out front over the years. Sherry Boehlert’s a great guy in Congress, he’s fought hard for—for the forest for example. But mostly the Republican Party, being of—being the home of the—the most conservative elements of our society, has opposed these things. In order to be a good environmental activist, you’ve got to be involved in public life and you’ve got to pick the party that’s going to do something and get involved with candidates who are in that party. Because once they’re elected to Congress, they elect a speaker and the speaker and the committee chairman who are elected on the first day, govern what comes up on the floor. It doesn’t make any difference how many great rhet—rhetoriticians you have and how many speech makers you have, if you can’t get that bill out of committee and to the floor, you can forget about protecting the forest or cleaning up the water or cleaning up the air. So if you really care about the environment, you’ve got to play a role in politics. And maybe if that’s not your bag, make some campaign contributions to politicians. I mean, there’s got to be a way but if you’re not going to be making your voice heard in the political dialog of our country, you’re—you’re really not going to be making a contribution to—to changing things.
DW: During the course of our journey we have interviewed a lot of grass roots environmental people involved and a lot of them said, “Well, you know, you’ve got to write letters, you’ve got to send letters.” I’m wondering now you’ve been on the other side of these letters and one always wonders what happens. Do the letters come in files, do they come in trickles on an issue and how do you know when it reaches a critical mass that, like, gosh, forty people in a community wrote? How do you weigh that and what do you tell these people who might be cynical and they’ve given up on hoping the system will matter or address their issues as well? Could you address that?
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JB: Well the letters that are written to members of Congress, the phone calls, the personal contacts, the appearances at the Congressmen’s town meetings, all have an impact, definitely people should do that. What has an impact also though is campaigning at—at election time, helping in the campaign of the person that you believe is the best one and working hard to defeat the one you think is standing in the way of progress. That’s part of our system. People are so reluctant to get involved in that but it has to be done. There are those who have become cynical about public life, I understand why. First of all we have three hundred million people in this country, not everybody agrees. If you want to see a big argument, go to an environmental group meeting, watch how the environmentalists themselves argue with each other, shout back and forth, accuse each other of being too weak on the environment, not strong enough. That’s in the environmental community. Go to a Sierra Club meeting. Sierra Club is a great big federation, watch the debates that take place. That’s the way it is even there, that’s the same way it is inside of a church, inside of a Kiwanis Club, inside of a labor union, inside of a corporate boardroom. That’s life. Anybody that’s looking for a—a—a—a way to make progress without having any dialogue, without ever having to debate, without ever having to try to round up votes and—and get your point of view adopted is not in the game, they don’t understand how—how the human race operates. So a lot of people who say, “Well I’ve become cynical” don’t have the patience for the process that leads to real progress and I think it is a real copout and very easy to say, “Oh, well I’m going to—I’m just going to go around being a voice in the wilderness, I’m going to be like Jeremiah in the Bible, I’m just going to wonder around warning everybody of—of doomsday that’s—that’s about to come.” Well I suppose there’s a little bit of value to that in the environmental movement, but not nearly as much as electing a few extra members of Congress that will vote our way or Senators or members of the Legislature. And that’s hard work, it takes a lot of time, there’s not an immediate reward for it and if instant gratification’s what you want, then I think you need to go do something else.
DT: I had a closing question. You’ve spent a long time fighting the good fight in the Legislature and the House and most recently in the courtrooms and I was wondering what you do when you want some respite from this? Is there a place in the outdoors that you’ve enjoyed over the years, a piece of nature that you could tell about?
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JB: Well, I—I really like being in the outdoors. I’ve always liked hunting and I’ve always liked being outside. But I don’t have a particular place that I go and this is my place, you know. I—I like virtually all the places I’ve been. I’ve hunted in Colorado and Montana. In fact, I was hunting in Montana on horseback when I came around a bend and saw the most enormous clear cut I’d ever seen and I just—the most obscene looking site I’d ever seen. And I went back to Congress to introduce that bill. That was in the ‘80s when that—when that happened. I—I—I think that it’s possible for people to love the environment and know—and—and really believe the environmental ethic without having to be a full-time woodsman or have a particular place they always go. Phil Burton of California, the late Phil Burton was a representative for many years from San Francisco area accomplished more probably for forest protection and other environmental measures than I would think any other member of the Congress in the history of this country. He’s not very well known because he was a political leader and a—and a Congressional, I guess expert on the process. He was a person that knew how to get things done and he didn’t spend time getting—making a national name for himself. I don’t think they ever got Phil Burton out of a suit to go out into the redwoods of
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California that he protected. So it takes all kinds of people to—to do these things. I don’t think that most people who love the environment and want to protect the—the forest necessarily get to spend very much time out in the woods. I know that if you believe that we are all of one fabric and that all of life is of one fabric, that the destruction of any—any life has to be done with a—a—a lot of—with many reservations and the wholesale destruction of forest or the elimination of—of—of our biodiversity, when we know what we’re doing, polluting our streams or polluting of the air, no one I think that has that view can sit still and watch it happen without wanting to step up and—and add their voice to the voices of those that are trying to prevent the environment from being destroyed. I have children, we have a generation that’s coming on behind us. I would sure hate for the history books to say that—that I just gobbled up everything in sight for myself and left nothing for the next generation. And I think most people agree with that.
DT: Thank you for your time.
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JB: Sure. Thank you.
End of reel 2130
End of interview with John Bryant