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  July/August 2004
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The Green Old Party
Republican conservationists want to reclaim the GOP.
by Martha Marks

SIDEBAR: The GOP's Forgotten Greens
SIDEBAR: Uniters, Not Dividers

 Don't stomp on Teddy Roosevelt's legacy, says REP America.
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

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 dwindle away.

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

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