Bush backing off on water bill

Congress took a baby step forward to protect the Great Lakes when a conference committee voted $15 billion for the Water Resources Development Act, including $9 million to fund a permanent and, it is hoped, effective barrier to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

President George W. Bush took a giant step backward last week by threatening to veto the act because he thinks it would cost $20 billion.

Whether it's $15 billion or $20 billion, it works out to about the amount the Bush administration spends in Iraq in five or six weeks. If we can't afford to spend that much on an environmental issue equally vital to our own national security, then something is dreadfully wrong.

We need to recognize that homeland security against natural bio-threats is just as important as homeland security against terrorism. We should be increasing our spending to avert threats from all kinds of invasives, terrestrial as well as aquatic, because they can wreak havoc on our economy.

One of these days we could see the arrival of an invasive disease that threatens corn or wheat or some other critically important agricultural product vital to our economic survival.

French grapes grow today on American rootstock because North American aphids wiped out most of France's vines in the 1860s. An Asian beetle is wiping out our Michigan ash trees and Lake Huron's salmon fishing is collapsing in the face of a perfect storm of several exotic species.

We need to recognize that while the events unfolding in the Middle East appear all-encompassing at the moment, a couple of decades from now we may see a very different world.

Sixty years ago, America was locked in a deathly struggle with Germany and Japan. Today, so many Americans buy German and Japanese cars that our domestic auto industry is threatened.

Fifty-five years ago, hordes of Chinese soldiers attacked American troops in Korea. Today, most of what you buy at Wal-Mart comes from China.

Forty years ago, 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam to prevent the predicted fall of southeast Asia to Communism. Today, the morning coffee you drank may have come from Vietnam.

Disputes between nations are transient. But the threat of exotic species will never end and could become more severe as increasing trade and technology continue to shrink our world.

Exotic species are a huge threat to the Great Lakes, as we've seen with the economic costs of zebra mussels, lamprey eels and other critters. The Water Resources Development Act should help with those problems. But how many people realize that exotic species also are exacerbating the problems of wildfires in the western states?

Firebreaks cut through western forests to stop the spread of wildfires are now filled with exotic plants like Chinese cheat grass, which botanists at the U.S. Geological Survey say burns like gasoline when it dries. Not only is the cheat grass incredibly inflammable, it is very short-lived, producing fuel a lot earlier in the year than the native grasses it replaced.

The result is that firebreaks that once helped control wildfires now help them spread, causing major economic losses to the timber industry and the people who own those forests.

In most cases, the owners of those forests burning in Idaho and Wyoming states are Americans, and we all benefit from the timber they produce to build our homes, businesses and public edifices.

We all are responsible for taking care of them, and if we in the region don't recognize that, why the heck should people in other parts of the country support our efforts to preserve the Great Lakes?