Don't stomp on Teddy Roosevelt's legacy, says REP America.
In March 1995 — early in the "Gingrich Revolution," when it looked like every environmental law on the books was about to be gutted — I attended an Endangered
Species Coalition conference in Maryland. The conference organizers introduced me as what they obviously considered to be the oddest of odd ducks: a local
Republican official who had traveled from Illinois to learn more about the Endangered Species Act.
Several participants came up to me later and said, "We're Republicans, too, but we're embarrassed to admit it." That weekend, we resolved to build an organization
for people like us. By late summer, "Republicans for Environmental Protection" was created, and newspapers from Tallahassee to Tucson picked up the "man bites
dog" story of conservation-minded Republicans who wanted to reform their party. Other Republicans around the country spotted those articles and (miraculously, in
those pre-Web-site, pre-office days) found their way to us. REP America was off and running. Today we have members in 49 states, with chapters in nine and more
to come this year.
Once upon a time, the Republican Party was a leader on environmental issues. In fact, it was the environmental leader. If you came of age between the
inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981 and the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001, you probably think that statement is nuts. When I speak to college
audiences, in fact, I find that almost all of them think that a Republican is supposed to be anti-environmental, and that if you care about protecting the environment
you must be a Democrat. And that's a shame. It reflects an indifference to the historical record, and more important, poses a danger to environmental progress.
Conservation is fundamentally conservative. Republican Party values of fiscal prudence, reducing waste, love of country, and responsibility to future generations
mesh neatly with environmental goals. So it makes perfect sense that Republican President Theodore Roosevelt protected 240 million acres of wildlands, exceeding
the combined land areas of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. TR quadrupled the acreage in national forests, invented the National
Wildlife Refuge System, and proclaimed 18 national monuments, including 868,120 acres of the Grand Canyon and 639,200 acres of Mt. Olympus. He even
dispatched the Marines to Midway Atoll to protect the Pacific's Laysan albatross–prized by feather collectors–from poachers.
The Great Green Divide
Republican presidents have signed many of our landmark environmental laws, but Democratic legislators have long voted better on green issues than their GOP
counterparts. The League of Conservation Voters tallies an average score for every legislator based on environmental votes cast during each congressional session,
then provides averages for each party and chamber of Congress.
According to data compiled by the nonprofit group, Democrats consistently outscored Republicans
throughout the 1980s. But starting in the early 1990s, the gap grew wider than ever, and in the last four years GOP legislators have earned some of their worst
scores in two decades. For more information, go to www.lcv.org.
No other president of either party has come close to TR's record of land conservation. But quite a few other Republican leaders left a legacy worth bragging about.
Calvin Coolidge set aside Glacier Bay
in Alaska. Herbert Hoover, even in bad economic times, expanded protection of the Grand Canyon. Among Dwight Eisenhower's proudest achievements was
protecting the coastal plain of what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
And Richard Nixon, always the savvy politician, responded to Americans' desire for
a cleaner environment by establishing the EPA and signing into law four landmark environmental bills–the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the
Environmental Pesticide Control Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Today, many Republicans are working hard to continue the GOP's conservationist legacy. Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York rallied other green
Republicans to block Newt Gingrich's anti-environmental efforts. The two great senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, helped stop the push to
drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And the entire GOP delegation from Connecticut–Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson, and Rob Simmons–is among the most
reliable pro-environment voting blocs in the House of Representatives. There are many more like them in Congress and state legislatures.
Even Republican pollsters report back to party leaders that the majority of GOP voters want strong environmental protection. But the party's been hijacked over the
last two decades, catering to special-interest money and ideologues like the Club for Growth's Stephen Moore, a so-called conservative who proclaims his
"adamant" opposition to energy conservation. The result is an anti-environmentalism that flies in the face of some of Roosevelt's most inspiring pronouncements: "I do
not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many."
REP America defends this true conservatism and raises hell when our party doesn't live up to its legacy. When George W. Bush chose Gale Norton to head the
Department of the Interior, REP America joined the Sierra Club and other groups at a press conference to oppose the nomination. My statement to the national
media began this way: "I did not want to be here today. I am a lifelong Republican. I am a Republican elected official. And I had hoped that our new president would
choose an Interior secretary who was committed to the great conservation tradition of Theodore Roosevelt. We would have cheered such a nominee and defended
him or her against partisan attacks.
But as Republicans who believe that conservation is fundamentally conservative, we are compelled to speak out. With so many
pro-conservation Republicans qualified for this position, we cannot understand why President-elect Bush chose someone who holds views shared by only a minority
in our party and the nation at large."
Republican leaders would like to pretend that people like me don't exist. As long as we blend in with the greater environmental community, the GOP is free to claim
that only "liberals and wackos" care about environmental issues. That's obviously a flawed claim, but it's one that feeds the obtuse anti-environmentalism of many of
today's Republican Party leaders.
But this is more than REP America's battle. Every citizen–even Democrats flying "Anybody But Bush" flags–should be glad to see a green GOP group prosper.
That's because meaningful, permanent progress occurs only when the leaders of both parties take up a cause and seek a solution together. It happened in the 1970s,
and it can happen again. When we allow one party to take the environmental vote for granted and the other to ignore it, we'll continue to see hard-won gains
There are important political reasons for building a green GOP organization across the country. Republican environmental heroes need like-minded constituents in
their districts to help them counter the anti-environmentalists who claim the Republican mantle. If GOP environmentalists bail out of the party, fail to speak up, or
refuse to fight for our heroes, those courageous Republican senators and representatives who defend our public lands and fight for higher pollution standards and
better energy policies will be beaten back by well-funded anti-environmental extremists.
TR knew that conservation was a fundamental American issue, a belief shared by both the Sierra Club and REP America. As more and more Republican
environmentalists band together to "green up" the GOP, we'll all do a better job of protecting this beautiful planet we call home.
Martha Marks is founder and president of REP America (Republicans for Environmental Protection).
Illustration by John Cuneo; used with permission.Up to Top