Activists Say Environment Will Sway Election

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Activists celebrating Earth Day predicted environmental issues will play a key role in Nevada's fall elections - from the statehouse to the White House.

"We definitely think it's a winning issue for candidates here," Sierra Club organizer Carrie Sandstedt said Thursday.

"We're getting great response from people who are alarmed that the Bush administration is rolling back 30 years of progress in a whole host of environmental laws," she said.

Leaders of several conservation groups speaking at a blustery Earth Day news conference outside the federal courthouse in Reno acknowledged the war in Iraq and the economy are the most important issues for voters in the presidential race.

But they insist Nevadans are concerned about environmental issues, including plans to build a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, demands on water supplies, U.S. energy policy and protection of Lake Tahoe.

"I think it is going to play more of a role here than it has in the past," said Michelle Kennedy of the Nevada Wildlife Federation.

Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a statewide coalition of 43 organizations, said the conservation movement has grown in the past 20 years since there were only a couple of paid organizers in the state.

"Today there are 10 times that amount and many new groups and boards who are bringing young people along," he said.

A national coalition of environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, launched a campaign this week to help Democrat John Kerry defeat President Bush.

The groups expect to spend up to $6 million in ads and door-knocking to contrast Bush's and Kerry's environmental records.

Initially, they plan to target Florida, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin but could include three other swing states - Nevada, Arizona and Ohio.

The backing should help Kerry in Nevada, said Frankie Sue Del Papa, a Democratic activist and former state attorney general.

"I think the environment will be a `top five' issue in the elections in Nevada this fall both at the state level and national level," Del Papa said.

"When you talk about quality of life in Nevada and concern about air and water and recreation - from Red Rock Canyon to Lake Tahoe to Great Basin National Park - it's really on everyone's agenda," she said.

Chris Carr, executive director of Nevada's Republican Party, said the environment needs to be considered but it's not a "make or break issue" for any candidate in the state.

"It could actually be a losing issue for Kerry with Ralph Nader in the race," he said about splitting environmental support.

"I would say right now the attention is on the war. And in every presidential election there's always pocketbook issues - taxes, jobs, the economy."

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said national environmental groups don't sway most Nevada voters.

Such groups as the League of Conservation Voters and Nevada Conservation League serve primarily as Democratic fronts despite their nonpartisan claims, he said.

"It is obvious they are creating these little conservation leagues around the country in order to support John Kerry's campaign," Gibbons said by telephone from Washington.

"They are left-wing special interest groups that pontificate on environmental protection but stymie every responsible piece of legislation aimed at protecting the environment," he told The Associated Press.

Earth Day has been one of the biggest rallying points for environmental issues in the United States, activists said at Thursday's news conference.

"Thirty four years ago, the underlying purpose was to change people's attitudes toward the way we treat our planet," said Bob Goodman, a retired federal land manager and member of the Lahontan Audubon Society.

"One of the things that separates the two parties in this election is that the Democratic Party knows how to spell the word environment. I'm not sure the other party does," he said.

Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn takes exception to claims Democrats have a market on environmental issues, his spokesman said.

"The chief executive in this state is a Republican and the environment has been extremely important to him. And he's supporting the president," Greg Bortolin said.

Guinn "has worked to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list, he's working on wild horse issues, trying to preserve Walker Lake, working on forest issues at Lake Tahoe and trying to protect Lake Tahoe," he said.