By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Every month, about 2,300 Arizonans pay $25 surcharges to buy decorative auto license plates that depict a desert landscape and declare their intent to "Protect Our Environment."
The green message is misleading.
A more appropriate logo might be "Protect Our Way of Life."
Environmental license plates sales have generated nearly $1.6 million for an environmental-education fund. But political opposition to the fund, which was created in 1990, prevented any money from being spent until last year.
The fund is controlled by the Arizona Advisory Council on Environmental Education--a 10-member panel appointed by the governor and the Legislature.
The panel is dominated by representatives from the mining, timber, cattle grazing, farming and real estate industries along with conservative economists and far-right political scientists. There are no representatives from mainstream environmental groups on the council.
The council has developed a complex series of guidelines requiring teachers seeking grants for environmental education to structure their courses to include a wide array of social, political and economic material related to the environmental topic.
Councilmember Michael Sanera says the goal is to present a balanced view of environmental issues that is fair and accurate. Simply relying on government data to present environmental lessons, Sanera says, is not acceptable.
"Government agencies have an ax to grind and are not always fostering what I consider to be balanced information," says Sanera, who co-founded the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, before starting the Environmental Education Research Institute in Tucson.
"They [teachers] should be getting information from multiple sources and then let the kids deal with the information," Sanera says.
Sanera has gained national prominence for his efforts to reform environmental education programs across the country by encouraging other states to adopt Arizona's approach. He also has written a book, "Facts Not Fear: A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment."
While Sanera is the most high-profile member of the council, there are also other notables.
Chandler economist John Semmens operates the Laissez Faire Institute--which promotes free-market economics--and is leading the opposition to a proposed Chandler $120 million sales tax for mass transit that will be on the ballot in May.
The timber industry is represented on the council by Bruce Whiting, president of Kaibab Industries. For decades, Kaibab operated a logging subsidiary that was a major presence in rural Arizona. The company shut down several Arizona mills in the mid-1990s after environmentalists won a bitter legal struggle with the company to increase protections for endangered species in several national forests.
Kaibab also was the target of a federal criminal investigation into the illegal cutting of thousands of trees in the Kaibab National Forest north of the Grand Canyon. The company agreed to pay a $300,000 penalty to the U.S. Justice Department in December 1994 to settle the investigation without admitting to any wrongdoing.
Incoming council chairman Monica Pastor says the requirements to include social and economic implications of environmental issues amounts to a litmus test for awarding grants--but that the council is only following the mandate of the Legislature.
The Legislature's mandate is clear--gut environmental education.
The original intent of the environmental license plate fund was to "develop positive attitudes and values toward the environment and encourage civic and social responsibility toward environmental issues," according to the original legislation.
The language was replaced in 1994 with a more utilitarian directive requiring environmental education programs to "be designed to help pupils develop an understanding of the scientific and economic concepts which impact on environmental and natural resource issues."
The Legislature tossed out a requirement for K-12 environmental education in 1995. If school districts wanted to teach environmental classes, the Legislature required them to include "a discussion of economic and social implications" of environmental issues.
In 1997, the Legislature once again modified the law, this time requiring that all programs funded by grants must be "conducted in a balanced manner."
The Legislative changes created chaos on the council, which had no paid staff members until this year. As a result, no funds were released for environmental education until last year. By that time, nearly $1.5 million had accumulated in the fund.
The council awarded $516,579 in fiscal 1998, which ended June 30, 1998, to about 90 environmental-education programs in schools, universities and natural resource conservation districts. In the first half of fiscal 1999 (which began July 1), the district has allocated about $341,000 for programs. The fund receives about $42,000 a month from sales of environmental plates.
Many of the grants awarded in the first six months of this year appear to be free of political strings. Camelback High School received $10,000 to investigate the feasibility of alternate fuel vehicles, while Chino Valley High School got $10,000 to find a commercial market for razorback suckers.
Other grants included funds to develop a native-plant garden for elementary students at the Edu-Prise Charter School and $10,000 for the Hotevilla-Bacavi Community Schools on the Hopi Reservation to promote the use of renewable energy. More than a dozen $1,000 grants were given to schools to fund field trips to outdoor education centers including the Phoenix Zoo, the Arizona Botanical Gardens, Lake Pleasant Outdoor Education Center and Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
But other grants appeared to be rejected for political reasons.
Last year, the council rejected a grant proposal to build a solar car because it was seen as simply a "pep rally" for solar energy.