AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This was the lead article in the first issue, spring 1997, of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter


These days, it’s hard for many, especially young people, to believe that the Republican Party once championed environmental protection. The vast public lands that Theodore Roosevelt set aside, like the laws that Richard Nixon signed to protect air, water, and endangered species, are testimonials to the GOP’s once-great conservation legacy.

More recently, the party has painted itself into a corner on the environment, frittering away political capital in an absurd quest to gut laws that a broad majority of Americans support and to brand conservation as a liberal plot to handcuff business. Something is wrong when polls show that the majority of Republican voters trust Democrats to protect the environment more than their own party. That is not healthy, either for the GOP or, in the long run, for the environment.

Arizona Senator John McCain, one of the most respected GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said in a recent opinion piece that the party has only itself to blame for its unfavorable image on the environment. McCain said the party must earn back the people’s trust and find a Republican agenda with more substance than “coining new epithets for environmental extremists or offering banal symbolic gestures.”

McCain is correct. For the GOP to retain its congressional majority and reclaim the public’s trust on environmental issues, it must propose an environmental agenda that will truly benefit the environment while staying true to Republican values of smaller government, efficiency and free enterprise.

Here is what Republicans for Environmental Protection believes such a program might look like.

1. Regulatory Reform

We must re-examine the cumbersome, overly prescriptive rules that are difficult to comply with, stifle innovative approaches to cleanup, and impose undue burdens on small property owners. Results are more important than procedures and process, as long as firm standards are met, public accountability is maintained, and actions are informed by sound, impartial science. But when there is doubt, as there often is on complex natural resource issues, we must always err in favor of safeguarding the environment.

2. Put the Market to Work

Markets that recognize the full costs of economic activities and reward efficient, sustainable use of resources will prevent pollution and depletion far more effectively, and with less political resistance, than heavy-handed regulation. An essential step is eliminating outdated subsidies, trade quotas and tax gimmicks that distort markets, reward waste and encourage depletion. Spending taxpayers’ money to build logging roads into old-growth forests, for example, boosts short-term profits for timber companies, but it also encourages depletion of a resource that provides fresh water, flood control and wildlife habitat, and sustains sport and commercial fisheries.

We must re-learn what Theodore Roosevelt knew ninety years ago — that our forests, waters, soils and wildlife are part of this nation’s capital stock, which must be conserved for long-term productivity, not squandered for short-term gain.

3. Push the Technological Envelope

Emerging technologies will hold the key to protecting the environment and keeping our economy strong in the next century. Congress must fund research into industrial, energy and environmental technologies that will create new industries, new jobs and clean energy with less waste and less pollution. Other countries will surely pick up the technological ball if we drop it. Why should the U.S. lose out to them?

4. Reach Across the Aisle

Progress comes only when Republicans and Democrats work together. Bipartisan cooperation brought this nation many pieces of constructive legislation. Even in the polarized atmosphere of the 104th Congress, last-minute, bipartisan compromise resulted in a reauthorized Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s time to put aside partisan rancor, debate environmental issues constructively and solve problems for the long haul, not seek merely to score political points that will be forgotten as fast as yesterday’s newspaper.

By re-engaging environmental issues in a constructive, problem solving spirit, our party can reclaim its conservation legacy, build public trust and hold its majority. REP believes that the GOP must return to sound conservation principles if our nation is to meet the environmental challenges of the next century.