The Conservative Branch of the Wilderness Family Tree

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech to the Columbia Highlands Initiative Advisory Council in Spokane, Washington, on October 2, 2006.


Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be here.

How many here are interested in genealogy, tracing your family’s roots across time to get a better understanding of your origins?

OK, good. Tonight, I’m going to share some genealogy with you — not about me, unless you want to hear more later about the great-great grandfather who was excommunicated by the pope for what amounted to insubordination.

Tonight’s genealogy lesson is about the family tree of our American wilderness. There are two branches in the wilderness family.

One branch originates from roots that are from the progressive side of the political spectrum.

Republicans for Environmental Protection is particularly interested in the other branch, which originates from the conservative tradition. And by conservative tradition, I don’t mean the radicalism of poseurs like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. I mean conservatism as an intellectual tradition developed over the past two centuries.

Let me offer you a taste of what I mean.

Edmund Burke was an 18th century British statesman and is widely regarded as the father of modern conservatism. He described society as an intergenerational contract, covering past, present and future. We, of the present, have a duty pass on our common societal inheritance, intact, to future generations. To squander that inheritance is a violation of the contract.

As Burke said:

“They (meaning the present generation) should not think it among their rights … to commit waste upon the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation.”

Richard Weaver was one of Burke’s 20th century philosophical descendants. He wrote the following:

“Somehow, the notion has been loosed that nature is hostile to man or that her ways are offensive or slovenly, so that every step of progress is measured by how far we have altered these. Nothing short of a recovery of the ancient virtue of pietas (piety) can absolve man from this sin.”

You may not have heard of Weaver or Burke, but all of us have heard of Theodore Roosevelt, who understood the importance of conserving biodiversity before the term was coined and before ecology was a fully developed science.

This was the conservatism that helped produce the Wilderness Act of 1964 — one of the greatest conservation achievements of our nation’s history.

The dynamic of that debate will intrigue younger folks in the audience who weren’t around for it. Here, you had a Republican Congressman fighting for a strong wilderness bill against a Democratic Congressman who wanted a weaker wilderness bill.

That Republican Congressman was John Saylor from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Saylor’s support for wilderness was based on conservative principles. A veteran of World War II and a man of deep patriotism, he argued that the American wilderness symbolized the nation’s greatness, in the same way that cathedrals or temples represented the greatness of the much older nations of Europe or Asia.

Our identity was forged in wilderness, Saylor believed, and preserving wilderness is necessary for inspiring future generations.
Saylor was a man of deep piety. He believed that wilderness signified the majesty of God’s creation in a way that no human object ever could.

Saylor said:

“To permit the despoilment of our natural resources would be to desecrate a divine inheritance.”

Saylor’s support for the Wilderness Act was instrumental in its passage. He made it safe for Republicans to support it. He worked with his environmental allies to make the shrewd compromises that cleared the way for passage of the Wilderness Act.

No wonder Howard Zahniser, David Brower and the other greats of the 20th century conservation movement called Saylor “St. John.”

Over the past 40 years, bipartisan support has been crucial for expansion of our National Wilderness Preservation System, from its initial beachhead of 9 million acres to where it is today, more than 106 million acres and counting, and let’s hope new wilderness here in northeastern Washington will add to the total.

For example, it didn’t take long for the Forest Service to try to narrow the scope of the Wilderness Act through the so-called “purity” doctrine — the idea that a wild land cannot qualify for wilderness designation if there is the slightest sign of past human use.

We’re still battling the purity doctrine today — witness the needless delays that have blocked designation of the Wild Sky in western Washington.

Saylor and other Republicans pushed back. His allies included Republicans such as New York Senator James Buckley — brother of William F. Buckley, the conservative commentator and publisher of National Review — and George Aiken of Vermont, who was what we used to call a rock-ribbed Republican.

As a result, the way was cleared for designation of wilderness in Eastern national forests.

Three spectacular examples of bipartisan cooperation were the 1984 wilderness bills, the California desert act of 1994, and most spectacularly, the Alaska lands act of 1980.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan signed nearly two dozen wilderness bills. During his two terms, he signed nearly 40 bills, adding more than 10 million acres to the wilderness system.

I know that, for a lot of reasons, Reagan is not a favorite of many conservatonists, but he had a sentimental attachment to natural beauty. In a 1986 message to Congress, for example, he said:

“A strong nation is one that is loved by its people. As Edmund Burke put it, for a country to be loved, it must be lovely.”

But if you’re looking for a hero in the Reagan administration, you need look no further than First Lady Nancy Reagan. She was and still is a woman of strong views, outspoken, and wasn’t one to tolerate hired help who made her husband look bad. So when Interior Secretary James Watt prohibited a Beach Boys concert on the National Mall, Nancy said indignantly, “But I like the Beach Boys!” That was the last straw for Watt, who already was on thin ice. When Nancy moved against him, he didn’t know what hit him.

The 1984 wilderness bills were the outcome of a political bargain between congressional Democrats and the Reagan administration that was designed to end the festering controversy over the Forest Service’s roadless area evaluations. Well, as you can surmise from last week’s court decision, the controversy is still with us. But the 1984 wilderness bills are an undeniable achievement.

Jump ahead 10 years to passage of the California Desert Protection Act. The bill escaped Congress by the skin of its teeth, when Senator John Chafee — the venerable father of current Senator Lincoln Chafee — persuaded a critical number of his fellow Republicans to support a cloture motion — meaning an end to debate in the Senate, just before it was about to adjourn for the fall campaign that year. That allowed the California bill to pass, which at the time was the largest BLM wilderness bill ever.

One of those senators was New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg, who’s still in the Senate. He almost got a New Hampshire/Vermont willderness bill through Congress last week, but unfortunately it was caught up in procedural disputes. I hope it can still pass in the upcoming lame-duck session.

Another one of those senators was the late William Roth of Delaware, long a champion of protecting Alaska’s incomparable wilderness. Roth fought with Don Young and the rest of the Alaska delegation to help pass the Alaska Lands Act, which doubled the size of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

But that was more than a quarter of a century ago. Wilderness battles have always been difficult, but they have become much more so in recent years. James Watt’s ideas are a dominant strain among “conservatives” who have forgotten or, worse, have never read what conservative philosophers Burke, Weaver, and Russell Kirk had to say about protecting our natural endowment.

All I have to do is say, “Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee,” and you know what I am speaking of.

Wilderness has too often been turned into a political football. Stereotypes, demonization, and polarization have blocked meaningful progress on saving those wild areas that embody our heritage and offer solace to the spirit.

The result is mutual suspicion.

At its most extreme, some liberals see all Republicans as pillagers, uninterested in protecting nature. They sometimes forget, however, that cornering the market on environmental righteousness is not the path to lasting wilderness protection.

At the other end, some conservatives view all environmentalists as against freedom — determined to destroy business enterprise and send us all back to the caves. They have forgotten the Republican Party’s conservation heritage, and indeed, have bastardized the values of true conservatism.

Russell Kirk, the great conservative philosopher of the mid-20th century wrote: “Practical conservatism degenerated into mere laudation of private enterprise, economic policy almost wholly surrendered to special interests.”

Old conservative values about protecting the permanent things were superseded by a shallow ideology that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Old paradigms about building a transitory sort of wealth through extraction clash with new paradigms about building lasting communities through land protection.

Still, however, there are promising signs that people on all sides have grown weary of ideological brickbats and shouting from the barricades.

We may have more in common with adversaries than we think, but our differing words obscure those areas of agreement. You say “protect biodiversity,” your neighbor says “protect my old hunting grounds.”

Despite what you may hear, there are strong Republican constituencies for wilderness — sportsmen who want the kind of primitive outdoors experience their parents and grandparents enjoyed, without all the gadgets and gizmos. Suburban professionals who worry about passing on a decent quality of life to their kids. Rural communities that want to protect the land they love from the grasping consumption of a globalized economy.

You only have to look at the pockmarked land around the Jonah gas field in Wyoming to understand that.

We find ourselves making common cause against threats to biodiversity and to old hunting grounds. Witness the alliances between conservationists and ranchers trying to slow the juggernaut of gas development around Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton, Colorado’s Roan Plateau, or New Mexico’s Otero Mesa.

The 10th anniversary of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is revealing. Ten years ago, there was a run on tar and feathers in southern Utah at the very mention of Bruce Babbitt’s name.

There is still a lot of bitterness in Utah over the monument. But others are trying to make lemonade out of what they once viewed as a lemon.

At the time the monument was proclaimed, a local fellow named Dennis Judd hung the American flag upside down, the universal sign of distress. Today, Dennis Judd is on the board of a local citizens group trying to promote the monument, which drew 600,000 visitors last year. Judd says it’s time to move on.

In Oregon, Congressmen Greg Walden, a Republican from rural eastern Oregon, and Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from metropolitan Portland, hiked and camped together around Mount Hood. They got to know each other, talked to local communities, hashed out issues, and together crafted bipartisan legislation to expand wilderness around Oregon’s signature mountain. They may have to start the legislation over next year, but let’s hope not.

In Nevada, Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign, Democrat and Republican, haved worked together to expand wilderness in their state’s pinyon-juniper highlands, canyons and bajadas. They have another bill in the works for eastern Nevada.

In Idaho, Senator Mike Crapo sponsored the Owhyee Initiative, which brought together conservationists, ranchers, off-roaders and other interest groups to settle old questions and feuds about land use in southwest Idaho. That effort may add half a million acres of wilderness to the system

Now, let’s turn to George W. Bush.

Give him credit, President Bush has signed legislation adding more than a million acres of wilderness to the system. Bush sees the world his way, but you can teach an old dog new tricks — especially if you get First Lady Laura involved. She ordered up a White House screening of a Cousteau movie about the incomparable marine waters around Hawaii and that led to his establishment of the world’s largest marine reserve, the 89 million-acre Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. What a great way to mark the centennial anniversary of the Antiquities Act.

Now, building support for wilderness through painstaking negotiation is not without risk. Idaho’s conservation community is divided over the Boulder White Clouds legislation. Controversy over the Washington County bill in Utah its land disposal provisions illustrate the danger of giving up too much to get more acreage marked with a big “W.”

How much compromise is too much? That’s a hard question that the conservation community must address. I don’t have an answer tonight and I don’t anyone else does either. I think the answer will differ from place to place. It will be discovered through conversations, and the broader those conversations, the greater the likelihood that the right answer can be found.

So, where do we go from here? The first thing to remember is to put aside stereotypes. Republicans are no more monolithic than Democrats are. It’s important to tunnel through those barriers thrown up by cultural differences, media superficiality, and political posturing.

Words matter. The language we use is critical. Republicans seem to prefer the term “conservationist.” OK, fine, call yourself a conservationist.

We have to listen closely to what people are really concerned about, listen to their gripes , see how other people see the world, and be willing to do some hard bargaining — the kind that may lead to new wilderness in Idaho, Oregon, New Hampshire, and elsewhere.

This is a two-way street. Republicans need to work harder at rediscovering their conservation heritage. Republicans must learn anew how to talk about the environment with the clarity, insight, patriotism, and moral force with which Theodore Roosevelt and John Saylor talked about the environment years ago. They need to reconnect the environment to conservative ideals — national strength, piety, taking care of future generations, economic vitality, and the cardinal conservative virtue of prudence — which means embracing humility and leaving ourselves large margins.

Which brings me back to the wilderness family tree. The only way to keep that tree healthy and growing is to make sure that both sides of the family are involved. Progressives and conservatives both have rightful claims to its parentage and both must have a hand in its upbringing.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of our Republican heroes, former Governor William Milliken of Michigan:

“We should not measure human progress solely on what we have built, but also on what we have preserved and protected.”