Conservatively Speaking


AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha gave this keynote speech to the Western North Carolina Alliance annual conference, Asheville, North Carolina, on September 27, 2003.


It’s great to be back in the spectacularly-beautiful western portion of North Carolina. This is my second trip here in a year and a half. On April 12, 2002, I spoke at the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition’s “Restore the Great Forest” conference in Hendersonville.

Spring is a fine time to be in the mountains, and I enjoyed my visit here that April. But I’m delighted to be invited back to the neighborhood as the evenings turn from warm to crisp and there’s a tiny glimmer of what will soon be a glorious color show.

I must add that I’m aware that not everything in your state is glorious, environmentally-speaking. While it still looks glorious to an outsider like me, many of you who live here worry as you watch your natural treasures losing ground to resource extraction and development.

Sometimes it seems that native-born residents of a place don’t fully appreciate the delicate balance of nature that has surrounded them all their lives. They often seem more concerned with earning a living and raising a family than with protecting the natural beauty they take for granted. Many residents tend to be totally oblivious to what’s happening in the natural world around them.

Add to that the fact that your population is booming. Outsiders have discovered the beauty of North Carolina, with its temperate climate, skilled workers, and high quality of life. Business growth attracts new residents every year. Retirees from elsewhere fall in love with the same things that North Carolina natives love about your state. I only hope that the newcomers will aggressively pick up the cause of conserving the natural beauty and quality of life that drew them here in the first place. As somebody who just moved from my long-time home in Illinois to a new home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I’m certainly not one to suggest that post-retirement migration is an bad thing.

But rapid population growth does mean you’re dealing with the same stresses that afflict other parts of the country: suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, air and water pollution, flooding, loss of natural areas and wildlife habitat.

And of course, you’ve got an extra set of problems that some states don’t have to worry about. Irresponsible logging in national forest and private land causes erosion in your mountains and fish-killing silt in your waterways. Animal waste fouls your waterways, too. Air pollution from old power plants damages both your cities and the Great Smokies National Park. Biologists document an increasing rate of loss of rare species, and since this is such a biologically-rich area, those losses really matter.

Add to that the current political situation in which Big Money often seems the ultimate determiner of who wins office and makes decisions on resource-protection issues. Big Money seldom has a strong conservation ethic.

Add to that the polarized climate in which one party appears to have taken conservation and environmental concerns unto itself, while the other seems to react with indifference or outright hostility to the same concerns.

Add up all these factors and the situation looks grim.

These are frustrating times for those of us with a passion for saving wild lands and the other critters that are fellow travelers with us humans on God’s green Earth.

They’re frustrating times for those who believe that clean air and water and protected natural places in which to relax and recreate and restore our souls should be a fundamental birthright of all Americans.

They’re frustrating times for those who believe that government has a role to play in finding and promoting long-term solutions to problems that individuals simply cannot solve for themselves. Too often right now, our elected officials either jerk reflexively to ideological mantras or dance accommodatingly to the tune of whoever has the most cash to support their next campaigns.

Folks, I have to tell you… it’s at times like this and in places like this that I recall why a trio of Republican women launched REP back in 1995.

As you’ll recall, 1995 was the first year of the “Gingrich Revolution.” We three Republican women were very pleased to see our party take control of the Congress for the first time in forty years. But as the summer of 1995 wore on, we became increasingly worried about the sharp anti-environmental bent of the 104th Congress.

We three women met at an environmental conference in Maryland and began sharing a dream that someday a great wave of Republican conservationists and environmentalists would rise up and become a force to turn the GOP back to its pro-conservation roots. We haven’t accomplished that goal yet, but we’re a lot closer to it than we were eight years ago.

You know, it’s amazing how few people today realize that the Republican Party was once the unquestioned leader in efforts to protect and preserve this nation’s natural resources. REP has a publication called Conservation IS Conservative, which explores that history in great detail.

Let me just point out that Republican leaders as far back as…

  • President Abraham Lincoln, who first protected Yosemite;
  • to President Ulysses S. Grant, who established Yellowstone as our first national park;
  • to President Theodore Roosevelt, who set aside millions and millions of acres of protected lands,
  • to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who first gave federal protection to land that is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,
  • and on to President Richard Nixon, who signed great environmental laws that had passed with huge bi-partisan support in Congress—Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act —and established the Environmental Protection Agency,
  • and then to President George Herbert Walker Bush, who signed into law major improvements to the Clean Air Act.

And on Capitol Hill…

  • where Pennsylvania Congressman John Saylor battled for years to make the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act a reality;
  • and where Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater took a passion for the West’s great open spaces with him to Washington;
  • and where South Carolina Senator Strom Thurman was a stong voice of support for protecting the Congaree Swamp National Monument.

And if we look at the states, we see that…

  • Oregon Governor Tom McCall,
  • Michigan Governor Bill Milliken, and
  • New Mexico Governor David Cargo

were part of a great 1970’s generation of conservation-minded Republican governors.

And so it goes on up to our time, with Republican heroes like…

  • Congresswoman Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, who has fought for years to protect Ike’s legacy, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, from oil drilling;
  • and the two great GOP women from Maine, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins;
  • and Congresssman Sherwood Boehlert of New York State, known as “The Green Hornet,” who keynoted REP’s annual conference two weeks ago in San Diego;
  • and South Carolina’s Arthur Ravenel —a long-time REP member— who has a superb voting record as a member of both the US House and his state Senate;
  • and Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander who has stood up firmly to protect the Great Smokies National Park from the North Shore Road and is co-sponsoring a first-rate “four-pollutant” air-pollution-prevention bill.

All these men and women and dozens more like them made—and in my latter examples continue to make—huge contributions to the GOP’s great conservation tradition.

But, sad to say… somehow, somewhere along the way, that tradition has mostly been lost.

Despite individual Republican environmental heroes like those I’ve named, my party has gone so far astray on environmental issues that the notion of an organization called “Republicans for Environmental Protection” evokes not just laughter but also mocking taunts that Republican environmentalist is an oxymoron.

I often turn the tables on the jokers by boasting right up front of being president of the World’s Funniest Oxymoron. Only, of course, I know that it’s neither an oxymoron nor a joke.

We at REP fervently hope that Senator Elizabeth Dole will soon start taking strong environmentally-friendly positions. As someone who has been around the world and seen what happens when people don’t protect the places where they live, she ought to raise her voice in support of natural resource conservation and meaningful environmental protection.

We plan to be vocal and persistent in urging Senator Dole to take meaningful steps to clean up and prevent air pollution, defend North Carolina’s waterways from those dreadful confined animal feedlot operations, and protect public lands. And in return, we hope someday to be able to recognize her as one of our standout Republican Environmental Heroes.


Okay, with your indulgence, I’m going to shift gears and offer some suggestions for how to speak about environmental issues with those self-described conservative elected officials—of either party—who usually determine what happens in your beautiful North Carolina.

I’ve begun calling such people “self-described conservatives” because it in recent years the words conservative and liberal have been scrambled around and mis-used and “partisanized” so much that they no longer carry much meaning.

Radio talk-show hosts seem to use the word “conservative” as a mantra to excuse all sorts of behavior that really and truly isn’t conservative, and the word “liberal” as a nasty slur to blast anybody who doesn’t happen to agree with them.

But what does it really mean to be “liberal” or “conservative” in America these days?

We at REP believe so strongly that Conservation is Conservative that we’ve trademarked that slogan.

And I enjoy playing around with those two interrelated words in statements like:

Conservatives should conserve, not squander.

Unfortunately, right now, many self-described conservatives are more into squandering our natural resources than they are into conserving them.

I especially enjoy asking pointed questions, like:

When did the liberals become the conservers of our natural resources and the conservatives become the wastrels?

Or my own personal favorite:

If conservatives won’t conserve, who will?

In my talks around the country, I like to focus people’s attention on Five Great Conservative Principles with the potential to convince even the most die-hard self-described conservative officeholder to take a different look at natural resource conservation and environmental protection. These principles are:

  1. obligations to future generations
  2. fiscal responsibility
  3. prudence
  4. patriotism
  5. piety towards nature

I’d like to talk a bit about each of these and how they relate to environmental issues in Western North Carolina.


Conservative Principle #1

Society is intergenerational, and because it is, we have a moral obligation to pass on to future generations a world at least as good as what we inherited from our parents.

A healthy world, where all the interrelated parts function in the way the Creator intended them to function, is a patrimony that we are morally bound to respect. Like a great family trust fund, a healthy environment is an asset that will pay endless dividends in health, prosperity, and quality of life to generations of our descendants to come. We are the stewards of that priceless family inheritance, and if we don’t take care of our inheritance, nobody will.

When I think of North Carolina or your neighbor state of Tennessee, I think of the treasure that straddles that border. Great Smokies National Park is a fine example of the kind of natural trust that we inherited from our parents and are honor bound to pass on unsullied to our children.

What kind of trustworthiness are we exhibiting if we leave them a treasure choked with filthy air or riddled with roads that slice-and-dice its wild areas, reduce rare wildlife to roadkill, and introduce catastrophic exotic species? There is no way that any conservative worthy of the name could accept that kind of degraded legacy as suitable for his or her grandchildren.

What true conservative would shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh, air pollution is just a part of modern life. And if my kids come down with asthma… well, that’s okay!”

Cleaning up and protecting the world we will pass on to our grandchildren should be the most fundamental of conservative goals. Air pollution is not a family value!


Conservative Principle #2

We must be fiscally responsible… because that’s where we separate the truly-conservative men from the pseudo-conservative boys. I’m using the words men and boys symbolically, of course, because in this age of women like Senator Dole, the concept applies to both sexes.

My point is that in most cases involving natural resources, the fiscally-responsible approach is also the environmentally-responsible approach.

Each year, tax-watch groups like the Concord Coalition and environmental groups like REP join together as the Green Scissors Coalition, which exposes and fights costly, environmentally-harmful boondoggles.

There was absolutely nothing conservative in the federal government’s decision, decades ago, to order the Army Corps of Engineers to drain and otherwise “reclaim” land in Florida that had been a vast, productive wetland for eons. Taxpayers of the mid-20th century paid millions to destroy the Everglades to make way for development. We taxpayers of the early-21st Century are going to pay the $8 billion bill to partially repair the damage.

Likewise, there is absolutely nothing conservative in the decades-old proposal to build that North Shore Road through the Great Smokies National Park. Doing so would be not only be an environmental boondoggle but a fiscal boondoggle as well.

Just because the federal government made a mistake sixty years ago in agreeing to build a road there, that doesn’t mean that in this more enlightened time the federal government has any moral obligation to follow through.

The proposed buy-out will provide the county in question greater financial benefits at much less cost to taxpayers than any road could ever do… and with none of the harmful environmental side effects that the North Shore Road would bring.


Conservative Principle #3

It’s hard to talk seriously about prudence these days, because it sounds so dreadfully un-cool. The last public figure I can remember who embraced the concept was the first President Bush. “It wouldn’t be prudent” was one of his favorite sayings, right up there with “Read my lips.” And of course, we all know how little good it did him to be so conscientiously prudent!

However, putting verbal fashion trends aside… I have to say that prudence is the most practical, efficient, economical and business-like way of ensuring a safe and healthy future. Prudence compels us to protect our natural capital—those forests, wetlands, estuaries, endangered species, energy supplies, and so on, where our clean air, clean water, seafood, miracle drugs, electricity and transportation options… you name it—are all produced. Those things are our natural capital. It’s only prudent to protect them.

Do office-holders in North Carolina —or anywhere else in the country—exercise prudence today? If we asked them, they probably would say they do.

But I bet you anything that if challenged to explain exactly how they exercise prudence in protecting North Carolina’s natural capital—

  • your biologically-rich national forests
  • your Great Smokies National Park
  • your inland waterways, and
  • your equally rich, if hurricane-battered estuaries along the coast

—I bet most of them wouldn’t have a clue how to respond.

I believe that one of our tasks as environmentalists and conservationists should be to ask that challenging question — How are you exercising prudence? — and ask it, and ask it, and ask it, and ask it… until our leaders start talking with us about the big environmental and conservation issues of our time. And once they start talking with us, we can lead our leaders to the answers we want them to give and the actions we want them to take. We can teach them how truly cool it is to be prudent.

Conservative Principle #4

Patriotism is all the rage these days, and that’s good. It’s good for our side.

We environmentalists and conservationists are the ultimate patriots. We’re the right kind of patriots. We’re selfless patriots. We’re not scoundrels hiding behind a patriotic banner while we engage in some secret personal-enrichment scullduggery. We are genuine patriots, because by fighting to protect the lands and waters and soils and abundant resources of all types that give America life and make it strong, we help assure its ongoing prosperity.

President Theodore Roosevelt knew that nature is the ultimate, irreducible source of our sustenance, or, as he put it: “the final basis of national power and perpetuity.”

That’s a great way of putting it, but my favorite is the TR line that we use on the REP brochure: “Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

A couple of years back—shortly after September 11 — REP produced a car-buying guide called “Purchase Efficiency to Protect America’s Freedom.” We argued in that booklet that true patriotism calls on Americans to conserve gasoline and thus keep dollars out of the hands of unstable Middle Eastern dictatorships that fund terrorism. Getting serious about conserving gasoline, we argued, would demonstrate a whole lot more patriotism than flying the American flag on a Hummer! And I will add as an aside…we came out with that proposal long before this year’s “What would Jesus drive?” campaign.

Here in North Carolina, I believe you should introduce the words patriot, patriotism and patriotic into just about everything you say or write about environmental and energy issues. Not only will you strike a valuable chord that might not otherwise be struck, but you’ll be on absolutely solid ground in doing so. It’s an easy case to make that environmental activists are doing the patriotic work of defending our homeland from irreparable harm … just as surely as any soldier or sailor or Transportation Safety Administration baggage inspector.

I’m going to tell you now something that I first said a year ago in a speech to a group of river activists in Wisconsin:

“Don’t ever hesitate to wrap your issues in patriotic language. You’re doing God’s work. You’re protecting America. You’re patriots!”


Conservative Principle #5

Piety towards nature is essential, because man is not the lord of creation. He is but a part of it. And the more religious a man is… the more fervently a woman believes in the Creator… the more humbly they must approach the other works of the Creator.

In 1948, a great conservative writer named Richard Weaver wrote:

“Nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to any human whims. To some extent, of course, it has to be used. But what man should seek in regard to nature is not a complete dominion but a manner of living together, a coming to terms with something that was here before our time and will be here after it.”

I want to tell you that even though I’ve spent almost all of my adult life in the Chicago suburbs, I have long and deep roots in the South. I was born in Oxford, Mississippi, the child of parents with extended families in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Texas.

I have first and second cousins in all those states today: all of them good God-fearing Southern Methodists and Baptists and lifelong, conservative Republicans.

For the most part, they don’t know much about the environment, and they sure as heck don’t understand the passion that drives me to travel long distances to speak to groups like this. If they ever actually thought much about it, they’d probably laugh hard at this cousin who runs around the country promoting the wacky notion of Republican environmentalism.

And I have to ask myself… Why is that?

Why does the idea that a Republican might stand up as such to protect God’s great creation seem so ludicrous to people who passionately believe that God created the Earth and everything that’s in it?

Why is it that all those television and radio evangelists that my cousins listen to don’t fervently preach the gospel of stewardship and protection for God’s great green Earth, which gives us life and sustains us?

Yes, I know about the evangelical environmental movement that is slowly gathering steam in churches from coast to coast. That movement got started about the same time we launched REP—and for many of the same reasons. Lots of people within the evangelical environmental movement are also members of REP. There’s a natural fit in many cases. And I have to say that, as a movement with a message that can’t be beat, it’s worth its weight in gold.

But I hardly ever hear that kind of message of stewardship from the influential conservative media. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most self-described “conservative” TV and radio personalities—be they ministers or secular talk-show hosts—appear either blissfully indifferent or openly hostile to environmental concerns.

So, I have to ask myself again… Why is that?

At what point did the religious community into which I was born set itself up in opposition to the protection of God’s earthly creation, which has come to mean so much to me? At what point did self-described conservatives like Rush Limbaugh decide that having a passionate desire to protect the only place that we and our children and their children will ever have to live in… turns ordinary Americans into “enviro-nazis”?

This is a real puzzle to me, a heart-breaking, mind-bending puzzle that I probably will never fully resolve to my own satisfaction.


I’d like to close with a plea for greater bi-partisan emphasis on conservation and environmental protection, and explain why I think it matters so much.

Only when the leaders of both major parties take up a cause do the American people see meaningful, permanent progress. As long as one party takes the environmental vote for granted and the other party ignores it, we’ll continue to see our hard-won gains eroded by shortsighted politicians of both parties. We must make both parties compete for our support and hold both accountable for their performance. We must restore the environment as an important issue for both Republicans and Democrats.

REP is committed to this cause. Thanks to opportunities to work with groups like the WNCA, we’re getting our message out and building an ever-stronger network of kindred spirits around the country.

If any of you happen to be conservation-minded Republicans—or if you’re just curious about our work —please say hello to me tonight. I’d love to talk with you!

And thanks again to Brownie, Roger and all the others at WNCA. You’re doing great work… and I hope that REP’s North Carolina Coordinator, John Edwards, and our other members in this state will find a way to join forces with you to promote the natural values we all share.