Greening the Elephant

Is "Environmental Republican" an Oxymoron?

“Environmentalists are a socialist group of individuals that are the tool of the Democratic Party. I'm proud to say that they are my enemy.” So railed Alaskan Congressman Don Young (R-AK) on Alaska Public Radio in 1996. It was a typical diatribe from the Republican politician, who, as chair of the House Resources Committee, is notorious for his efforts to gut environmental measures. And he's not alone: the Federal Register listings for the past few years have detailed one Republican-led assault on the environment after another, most recently in the form of riders tacked onto appropriations bills. The actions of GOPers like Ted Stevens (R-AK), Connie Mack (R-FL), Larry Craig (R-ID) and Jesse Helms (R-NC) have led to a public perception of Republicans as tree-whacking, owl-hating, river-damming enviro-thugs.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

But it hasn't always been that way. A hundred years ago, “conservative” and “conservation” had more in common than just their Latin roots; the Republican Party produced one of the most environmental Presidents in the history of the United States: Theodore Roosevelt. During his Presidency, he established the first national park at Yellowstone. Although a supporter of economic development, Roosevelt believed that “the rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights, and must be given first consideration.”

Now, a small contingent of Republicans are determined to prove today what Teddy Roosevelt proved then: “Republican environmentalist” is not an oxymoron. REP America, the national grassroots organization of the Republicans for Environmental Protection political action committee, will settle for no less than the greening of the GOP. According to REP America President Martha Marks, “More than any single issue, we're out to improve the conscience of our party.”

Somewhat of a David to the party's powerful Goliath anti-environment leadership, the organization is small but effective. Although barely five years old, REP America has chapters in 47 states, including ones with notoriously anti-environment Republican leadership like Alaska and Texas, and claims members from almost all levels of government as well as the private sector. Marks says that she has collected a stack of letters from green Republicans thanking her for helping them justify their political affiliation—and for providing a source of moral support.

Then again, she admits, “others wish we'd shut up.” A recent letter from Don Young jokingly commended her for giving “good aid and comfort to the Democratic Party.”
So how did we get from Teddy Roosevelt, Republican conservationist, to Don Young, Republican excavationist? Special interests could have a lot to do with it. Over the past couple of decades, Republicans have developed cozy relationships with deep-pocketed campaign donors who make their money by exploiting natural resources.

To Teddy Roosevelt, protecting the country's natural resources was a practical investment in the future: “Unless we maintain an adequate material basis for our civilization, we cannot maintain the institutions in which we take so great and so just a pride,” he wrote, “and to waste and destroy our natural resources means to undermine this material basis.” With mining, timber, and oil interests frequently filling Republican campaign funding coffers (especially in the resource-rich West), that wisdom has been lost on many of the party's most powerful leaders. “Teddy Roosevelt is probably rolling over in his grave,” wrote southern California REPAmerica coordinator Aurie Kryzuda in 1996, during a particularly destructive anti-environment Republican rampage.

Sometimes, though, GOP reluctance to support environmental efforts has more to do with philosophy than economics. Career politicians entrenched in partisan politics are wary of venturing into what they perceive as liberal territory. Even Republicans who are deeply concerned about environmental problems sometimes have a hard time admitting a common interest with Democrats. Gordon Durnil, a conservative member of REPAmerica who served as chairman of the International Joint Commission under President George Bush, put it this way: “There is a cultural gulf between people on opposite sides of the environmental debate that gets in the way of reaching agreement between Democrats and Republicans.”

If there's one person who embodies the dichotomy that is environmental Republicanism, it's Chuck McGrady, a former Republican lawyer who runs a summer camp for children. For the past one-and-a-half years, he's also been the president of the Sierra Club. Does he ever find it difficult to reconcile his political philosophy with his environmental advocacy? “Sure,” he says. “All the time.” When a recent Senate race in his home state of North Carolina pitted an environmentally-challenged Republican with a pro-environment Democrat, he ended up calling the Republican on his poor environmental practices as a hog farmer. “I'm happy to say the Democrat won,” he says.

But McGrady believes that it's the people in the party that are the problem, not the party itself. “I think environmental protection is a conservative value,” he says. “Some of the worst environmental atrocities that occur are by government,” and since small government has always been a central tenet of the Republican worldview, he doesn't see a conflict.

Marks concurs. “I agree with the party on many things, but I don't agree with the 'pave it all over now and forget the future' faction of the party,” she says. “I've always been a Republican, and always will be.”

The “green elephant” movement is not without its critics. It has been accused of “greenscamming,” offering up eco-rhetoric to attract votes. That poll after poll shows the majority (usually around 80 percent) of Americans favors stronger environmental protections is not lost on Republican politicians like Presidential hopeful John McCain (R-AZ). He recently admitted that Republicans “have to do a lot more than they are doing today on the environment.” But Marks points out that McCain's League of Conservation Voters (LCV) rating for the 105th Congress is a paltry 13 percent.

McCain rival George W. Bush, who has so far offered vague generalizations about improving the nation's environment, is accused of merely responding to criticisms of his own lackluster environmental record in Texas: Houston now has the dirtiest air in the country, usurping Los Angeles as air pollution capital of the United States.

Marks believes that practicality will eventually force even the most recalcitrant Republican to acknowledge the importance of environmental protection. “No party can hope to ignore this concern and be successful for very long,” she says. Even Don Young might be coming to that realization: he recently voted to increase funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.