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What We Did in Virginia

  • Becky Dunlop

    From January 1994 to January 1998, I was Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia in the Republican administration of Governor George Allen. My goal was to change the paradigm that has governed environmental programs from the “fearsome master” approach to the “helpful servant” approach. I intended to do this by decentralizing the agencies that I oversaw and changing the rules under which they operated.

    Making this change aroused controversy. Part of the controversy was simply politics. The Virginia legislature was dominated by the Democratic party, which was hostile to our administration. On the national level, many Democrats wanted to stifle Governor Allen’s political future and saw that they might succeed if they could paint him as anti-environmental.

    But the controversy also reflected the resistance to change that we encountered as we attempted to move away from “command and control.” My leadership brought me into conflict with the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency, which ardently advocates central government control, a diminution of individual liberty and private property rights, and extols the view that the end justifies the means.

    My actions also brought me into conflict with environmental extremists who are not interested in the empirical evidence demonstrating, by virtually every measure, that we have an improving environment. Instead of celebrating the successes, our collectivist critics have chosen to take the rather unseemly role of trying to frighten our citizenry by promoting fear about the future of our environment and engaging in ad hominem attacks. Their goal is to ensure that the message about this new method for maximizing liberty while improving the environment will never reach the hearts and minds of the citizens.

    Although the full list of our accomplishments is long, here are some highlights of our efforts to improve environmental stewardship while lifting regulatory burdens.

    1. We streamlined government by decentralizing the Department of Environmental Quality, removing layers of bureaucracy, and putting more authority in the regional offices. Under the federally delegated air, water, and waste laws, we insisted on exercising discretion as a state government, not a “branch office” of Washington, D.C. In the case of Superfund, we declined delegation. We became advocates for our communities in cleaning up hazardous waste sites. Our state programs were faster, more successful, and far more cost-effective than Superfund, and we successfully resisted the listing of all non-military sites as Superfund sites.
    2. We sought compliance, not penalties, in dealing with Virginia businesses. That meant that we approached companies and other polluters with a policy akin to the “three strikes and you’re out” concept. Department of Environmental Quality professionals exercised their flexibility under the law to work with any regulated entity seeking to get into compliance. However, if people insisted on violating laws (“bad actors”), we referred them for enforcement action. The results are visible. While we reduced the number of cases sent to the Virginia Attorney General, we, at the same time, improved compliance and improved air and water quality in Virginia.
    3. Air quality is much better. In 1993, Virginia had five non-attainment areas under the Clean Air Act’s national ambient air quality standards. Today, only the northern Virginia region remains in non-attainment for ozone, and even there the number of hours during which the ozone standard is exceeded has dropped. Working with citizens, local governments, and businesses, we cut back on traffic on the summer days when atmospheric ozone rose near levels that the EPA considers dangerous. Weather also played a part, by the way-both in creating the non-attainment areas and in bringing them into attainment. Because they met the federal air quality standard for ozone for three years, Richmond and the Hampton Roads areas were formally redesignated by the EPA as being in attainment in 1997. (This change in status should make these areas more attractive to industry due to reduced regulatory requirements.)
    4. Virginia increased water quality monitoring sites to over 1,100 on its streams and rivers. Ninety-five percent of the sites meet federal standards for fishable and swimmable waters. We put these data on the Internet so that citizens and local officials all over Virginia can review the data and find out if there is a water quality problem in their local waters. If so, citizens can work in their communities on a site- and situation-specific basis to determine how to most efficiently and effectively restore or enhance the quality of their water resources.
    5. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission successfully implemented an Individual Transferable Quota program for commercial striped bass. ITQs are a right to a specified portion of an annual fish catch. Watermen who hold these rights can transfer, trade, sell or lease their share. These ITQs ended wasteful fishing practices since watermen could now be assured of not losing the opportunity to catch their entire quota. It also ended the cumbersome and often arbitrary procedures that the commission had been forced to use in order to decide who got to fish each year, and it helped make the watermen, as “shareholders,” into advocates for sound fishery management. Many people are talking about ITQs, but few governments have implemented them.
    6. We leased the George Washington Grist Mill Historic Park to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, the private organization that owns and manages Mount Vernon, with provision made for permanent transfer. This organization is one of the few in the country that have the expertise to restore mill machinery to working conditions. Far more visitors will learn about colonial America and our first president as a result, and taxpayers will no longer pay the bills.
    7. We helped move our state parks toward selfsufficiency and in doing so helped them to be more responsive to park visitors. We took actions in a variety of areas.We introduced market-based pricing for entrance fees and camping fees. We closed restaurants and services that were not economical and expanded the popular programs that were. We instituted seasonal pricing. At five parks we introduced per-person admission fees, rather than per-auto fees. Credit cards are now accepted at all parks.

      The Reservation Center has been upgraded to better serve customers by marketing park amenities when customers make their reservations. At the same time, the length of the average phone call to the center went down from six minutes to four.

      While doing this, we tried to manage the parks in ways that avoided competing unfairly with private campgrounds and other service providers. We reduced subsidies for park services that had private competition. We strove to avoid intense development -golf courses, high-amenity campsites, etc.-that could better be provided privately. And we moved camping and cabin fees toward market levels, while offering a 10% discount to in-state cabin users so that Virginia voters could more readily accept the changes.

      Total revenues have climbed. And, in spite of the fee increases, visitor satisfaction is high. For example, 97.4% of those who responded to a survey said they would recommend the park they visited to a friend. And volunteer participation in park activities has increased significantly as we encouraged Virginians to take “ownership” of their parks.

    8. One of the Allen administration’s greatest accomplishments was to spur the growth of Virginia’s economy, which provided individuals, businesses, localities, and the state government with more resources for improving the environment. After many years of promises from many politicians to “save” the Chesapeake Bay, Governor Allen for the first time set up a water quality improvement fund with $15 million for fiscal year 1998, and another $63 million to be used in 1999 and 2000. This money will be used to meet Virginia’s commitment to reduce nutrient flows to the bay by 40% (based on 1985 levels) by the year 2000. The costs are matched by private and municipal partners -on a voluntary basis, unlike the programs of neighboring states and the one pushed by the EPA.


    Our ideas were revolutionary when we undertook them in 1994. Today, they are considered commonplace and they are sweeping the country in state capital after state capital and even in the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. I am pleased to have been a part of this movement toward regulatory reform, which simultaneously increases environmental benefits.

    Becky Norton Dunlop, former Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, is now Vice President for External Relations at the Heritage Foundation.

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