The Politics of Wilderness Protection

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech at the 40th Anniversary National Wilderness Conference in Lake George, New York, on October 12, 2004.


Good morning. It’s a pleasure being here in the Adirondacks. It’s my first time in the ancestral home of the Wilderness Act.

I’m Jim DiPeso, with Republicans for Environmental Protection.

We’re practicing what we call political conservation biology — keeping alive that small but still extant gene pool of Republican conservationists.

Back where I live, Mount St. Helens has been rumbling of late after an 18-year sleep. This has been quite the spectacle.

People from around the Northwest are packing picnic baskets, coolers, and lawn chairs, gathering around and hoping the mountain will put on a show.

Down at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, meanwhile, visitors are fascinated with a great white shark they have managed to keep alive.

What does this tell me? It tells me there is a hunger to experience the wild – not just “safe” experiences, but also the edgy wild, like an explosive mountain or a large predator with numerous sharp teeth. As one woman told a reporter near Mount St. Helens – watching the volcano is a “primal connection to creation.”

This is a deep-seated sentiment that cuts across party lines. In fact, it has nothing whatever to do with party lines.
So why do we have this political problem? You know what I’m talking about. The environment in general, and wilderness protection in particular, are framed in polarizing terms these days. The basic rap is that all Democrats care about the environment, all Republicans don’t. All Democrats see environmental problems, all Republicans see doom-mongering. All Democrats have solutions, all Republicans have complaints.

Of course, those are exaggerated stereotypes. Not every Republican listens to Rush Limbaugh, not every Democrat cares for Michael Moore. But as Mount St. Helens shows us, where there is smoke, there is likely to be fire down below.

Why have we arrived at a point where the environment has been polarized along partisan lines?

Number one. Our society has changed. Environmental issues, along with many issues, have been swept into the maw of conflicts over values, culture, and worldview. You hear the phrase, the “two Americas,” one “red,” one “blue,” like two radio sets tuned to different frequencies, uncomprehending and talking past each other.

The reasons for this development are complex, with many sociological and psychological roots. There are several interesting theories that have been proposed to explain it. I’d be happy to talk about those during Q&A if you like.
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.

The result is what you see in what you see today in DC: An administration and a Congress that have compiled a terrible environmental record. An Interior Department where the word “wilderness” has been expunged from the lexicon – as in the novel “1984,” where undesired ideas were sent down the “memory hole.”

Welcome to the culture wars.

As our society has changed, the media has changed.

The world of three TV networks has been replaced by an accelerated news cycle and a profusion of cable channels and web sites. The nation no longer gathers around Walter Cronkite to hear a measured, professional telling of the day’s stories. Instead, many tune to cable channels where inflammatory barkers reinforce prejudices and block out contrary perspectives that may irritate but also will put our beliefs to the test.

As our society has changed, politics have changed.

Now, there has long been an internal tension within the Republican Party over conservation issues, between Republicans who understand the cultural nexus between conservation and old conservative values, and Republicans much more oriented toward private property and business enterprise.

That tension goes back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt.

His bitterest enemy in DC was a member of his own party, House Speaker Joe Cannon, who was supposed to have said:

“Not one cent for scenery!”

When the Wilderness Act was being debated, Congressman John Saylor had to fight his fellow Republicans who believed that wilderness protection was elitist. Fortunately, Saylor and other Republicans won that battle, and the Wilderness Act passed with large bipartisan majorities.

What’s different today, however, is that both parties have become much more partisan, more doctrinaire than they were 40 years ago when John Saylor and Hubert Humphrey joined forces to pass the Wilderness Act. There are fewer conservative Democrats like Scoop Jackson, fewer liberal Republicans like Thomas Kuchel, people with centrist tendencies able to work constructively across the aisle.

When we talk about politics, we have to talk about money. An old California politician named Jesse Unruh was supposed to have said that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Today, money is an endless buffet with super-size portions. So far, in this election cycle, more than $1.6 billion has been raised for presidential and congressional races.

When I think of how much land could be purchased and protected with $1.6 billion…

Money means that commercial interests with narrow economic agendas have undue influence over the fate of our public lands.

But it’s more than that.

Big gobs of money are raised to pay for the ad buys on the TV stations from which most Americans get their primary information about current events. The ads boil down public policy complexities into simplistic sound bites that bear no relation to the real world where policy problems must be solved through listening, bargaining, and accommodating layers of complexity.

Television oversimplifies and distorts. Politics practiced via television magnifies conflict and makes the hard work of governance more difficult.

All of these changes in society, media and politics have obscured our view of some interesting things that haven’t changed. Regardless of their political affiliation, people still value open space and wild places. You can see the polling results in Doug Scott’s newest book.

Even more revealing are election results. In the November 2003 election, 64 out of 77 local and state land protection ballot measures passed. In November 2002, 95 of 112 such measures were approved. And not just in “liberal” enclaves such as Berkeley, Boulder or Burlington. They were approved in conservative strongholds – like Dallas, southwest Florida and Colorado Springs.

The areas so protected may not be wilderness as we would define it, but the reasons voters passed those measures are nearly identical to the arguments we have made and should continue making to protect wilderness. Passing those ballot measures reflected concerns about clean water, quality of life, scenic beauty, and saving something for our children.

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.

So, where do we go from here?

The first thing to remember, which others have also said at this conference, 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 about environmentalists, see how other people see the world, and be willing to do some hard bargaining – the kind that produced new wilderness in Nevada and may lead to new wilderness in the Owhyee country of southwest Idaho.

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, taking care of future generations, cultural values, and economic vitality.

Today’s political outlook may seem bleak and in many ways, it is. This too shall pass. Politics runs in cycles. I am confident that we will transcend today’s divides and rediscover our common love for the land. We will have more wilderness protected on land even expand the wilderness ideal to the oceans, where life first emerged. What Wallace Stegner called the “geography of hope,” is on the land, on our waters, and in our minds. We must learn anew how to bring the geographies of hope together.