Putting conservation back into conservatism

By JIM DIPESO, REP policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech to the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council in Hotchkiss, Colorado, on March 20, 2005.


Good evening. It’s an honor to be speaking here. Place-based groups like yours are so important for our country. Plus, since I’m from Seattle, I want to thank you for ordering up the dismal, overcast weather, just to make me feel right at home.

For the last four years, well, nine if you count my volunteer board service, I’ve worked for Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Yes, we know what that sounds like. At all of our public speaking engagements, we try to get the oxymoron jokes out of the way at the outset, so then we can turn to the topic at hand.

My favorite oxymoron is one that ought to strike home with those of you who have to read Forest Service and BLM documents … or, for any of our federal friends in the audience, those of you who have to actually write them. This oxymoron is called the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act.

Occasionally, we get e-mail from people convinced that REP is a spoof organization. Anybody here see a recent movie called “The Yes Men?” It’s a kind of documentary about this group of playful young men who go around pretending to be officials from the World Trade Organization. Such as the time one of them made a public appearance in Australia to announce that the WTO was dissolving itself. And a good time was had by all.

Well, we’re not a spoof, but we do have fun. We’re a real organization of real people, including people right here in Colorado. In fact, we have members in 49 states. But we are still, still waiting for that elusive first member from North Dakota. I don’t know why we can’t break through there.

We have a board of nine people from around the nation, including Tweeti Blancett, who spoke to your annual conference last year and spoke quite well, I am sure.

We were founded in 1995 by a trio of women who attended an endangered species conference near DC — a businesswoman from Jacksonville, Florida, a political activist from San Diego, and a county commissioner from suburban Chicago. The latter would be Martha Marks, our founding and still current president who left county politics and moved to Santa Fe when her husband couldn’t take one more Chicago winter and she couldn’t take one more Chicago summer.

At that endangered species conference, during introductions, Martha revealed that she was a Republican and titters went around the room. Women came up to her in the washroom and whispered that they were Republicans too. On the spot, our founding trio decided there was a need for an organization of conservation-minded Republicans.

We liken our mission to be political conservation biology – keeping alive that small but still extant gene pool of Republican conservationists. We have not yet gone the way of the woolly mammoth or turned into artifacts on display at Dinosaur National Monument.

Which brings me to the title of my talk: “Putting Conservation Back into Conservatism.” Some of you younger folks may be skeptical that conservation and conservatism were ever acquainted in the first place. Well, your skepticism is understandable, especially when the party of Theodore Roosevelt and fiscal responsibility sometimes seems to have morphed into the party of Tom DeLay and maxxing out the national credit card.

The behavior you sometimes see among some of our Republican leaders is not the traditional conservatism that values humility, frugality, saving for the future, coupling responsibility to freedom, and showing piety toward creation.
Instead, what you see wafting out of Washington DC these days is a weird mix of reactionary populism, crony capitalism, flat-earth medievalism when it comes to science and party-down, borrow-and-spend, eat-up-the-seed-corn delusionism when it comes to economics, debasing the currency and putting us in hock to the world’s largest communist regime, at $200 billion and counting.

This weird ideology has been mixed up by ivory tower think tanks back East that have this notion stuck in their heads that nature is a vast left-wing conspiracy.

So let’s do a little political genealogy here, see where conservation and conservative values – true, traditional conservative values — line up, and see how all they apply to contemporary issues – including the energy and public lands issues that are hot topics throughout the intermountain West.

A couple of weeks ago The Economist magazine published a commentary urging President Bush to make a serious run at being a conservationist.

It was quite an interesting piece because it was a very cogent restatement of our position from a magazine with unimpeachable conservative credentials.

The article gave a few brief examples of conservation achievements from Republican leaders of yore. And, it discussed how conservation matches up with ideals that any conservative ought to find appealing, such as national security, economic strength, taking pride in our country’s natural beauty, carrying out our stewardship duties to God’s creation, and the impacts of toxic pollution on the unborn.

Let’s talk about that history and those ideals.

Let’s start with Theodore Roosevelt, who set the gold standard for conservation – 18 national monuments, 55 of what we now call national wildlife refuges, 5 national parks, and nearly quadrupling the size of our national forest system. On the first day of July in 1908, he established 93 national forests, including the Uncompaghre and Gunnison national forests in western Colorado. He acted to protect the forests from what he called the “land grabbers.”

The land grabbers are still among us, as ranchers, outfitters, and landowners of western Colorado well know.

Why did Roosevelt pay so much attention to this issue? For starters, he had a lifelong personal interest in wildlife and the outdoors. In his time, he was the world’s foremost authority on large North American game mammals. Given other life choices and circumstances, he might have devoted himself to field science research.

But his conservation achievements reflected much more than personal interest. He strongly believed that using natural resources with care and efficiency was essential for protecting the nation’s strength and keeping our country prosperous and secure for generations to come.

In 1910, he said:

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”

How is that relevant today?

There are conservatives who understand this security issue in all its dimensions. If you travel to Washington DC these days, you may see Jim Woolsey driving around in a Toyota Prius. Jim Woolsey is the former director of the CIA.
Is Jim Woolsey trying to look cool? Well, maybe, but his real reason for buying a Prius was that he and a group of other hawkish conservatives are convinced that our dependence on oil is a threat to our national security.

Anybody here remember the name Robert McFarlane? Robert McFarlane was President Reagan’s national security adviser. He’s part of this interesting cabal of hawks who are pushing for serious national policies to improve fuel efficiency and develop non-petroleum transportation fuels.

They know, as does anyone who looks at the issue honestly, that America cannot become self-sufficient in oil, no matter how many holes we poke in our national treasures, from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana to the Red Desert to the Roan Plateau to Otero Mesa in New Mexico to the Florida coast to the beaches of California.

No, the only way to lessen our dependence on foreign oil is to lessen our dependence on oil, period. And the battle starts with fuel efficiency.

Fortune magazine, that well-known magazine of tree huggers, said very colorfully last year that there is room to improve our fuel efficiency. They wrote:

“Americans have been on a two-decade oil pigout, gorging like oversize vacationers at a Vegas buffet.”

Ouch. Their words, not mine. But fundamentally true, nevertheless.

Jim Woolsey and his friends want to see a lot more of us driving plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and filling them up with ethanol and biodiesel. They want our elected leaders to enact a $12 billion program of incentives and standards that they call “Set America Free.”

The less oil we burn, the less dependent we are on the global oil market, where most of the supply is controlled by countries that do not have America’s best interests at heart. Despite what you hear from some of the politicians, the facts are this: as long as we are dependent on oil, we will be dependent on foreign oil.

By using so much oil, we are failing to heed George Washington’s warning about the dangers of foreign entanglements.

  • We are funding both sides on the war on terrorism.
  • We are giving our money to the world’s worst governments.
  • We are involving ourselves in old blood feuds in strange lands that we don’t understand well.
  • We are undermining our nation’s moral authority.
  • And we are sowing the seeds of future conflicts for those last pots of black gold in the Middle East.

China is turning its nation of 1.3 billion people into an industrial powerhouse. Within our lifetimes, China will have the world’s largest economy. That takes energy and today, that means oil.

China is making deals with Iran and Saudi Arabia. They have combat troops in Sudan. The U.S. foreign policy experts are worried about that … and well they should.

Using less oil is the straightest, surest path to strengthening our security for the long run.

But what about natural gas?

Well, we know there is already plenty of access to Rocky Mountain gas reserves. Nearly two-thirds of the gas reserves on Western federal lands in the Rockies are open to leasing without any restrictions.

More than 35 million acres of federal lands were under lease for oil and gas production as of 2004, although fewer than 12 million acres were actually in production.

We’re not saying throw the gas men off our public lands. There is a place for gas production in suitable areas of our national forests and BLM lands, if it is managed well and if good neighbor agreements for split estates are enforced.
But let’s not get carried away. Let’s not allow energy production to become the dominant use of public lands. I know no one in this room doesn’t care about the intrinsic value of wildlands and wildlife, but even if you don’t, let’s not forget that wildlife recreation injects $2 billion into Colorado’s economy every year.

Most of all, let’s not forget that unlimited gas production is not a panacea. As is the case with oil, domestic demand for gas is outrunning domestic supply. By 2025, gas demand is projected to be up 50 percent. The percentage of electricity generated by natural gas will rise from 16 to 24 percent.

Importing liquefied natural gas can help, but that creates issues for our friends in coastal states, and we have to be careful about repeating mistakes. The world’s largest gas reserves are in places such as Russia, Qatar, and Iran, not well known as stable democracies.

Even if we open up everything to gas production – wilderness areas, WSAs, roadless areas, monuments, the works – it’s not a substitute for conserving energy and diversifying our energy portfolio.

Paul Roberts is the author of a book called The End of Oil. In a magazine article last year, he quoted a gas executive as saying:

“Even if all the off-limits land were opened for drilling, all the new gas we could bring on line wouldn’t be enough to replace the production we’re losing from older fields.”

Gas has a significant role in our energy future. But only as part of a complete package that is focused on using both gas and electricity more efficiently, and moving toward a more diverse portfolio, including bio-fuels and renewables.
What about coal? There is a place for coal in our future if we clean it up. Near Tampa, Florida, there is a power plant that runs on gasified coal. It’s a little more expensive than conventional, pulverized coal, but I’m confident that with strong support for research and development, we can improve coal gasification and find ways to sequester carbon away from the atmosphere.

What about nuclear? With the climate problem growing, we can’t rule it out, but we have to isolate the waste reliably, keep the plants secure, and prevent proliferation. At this point, new nuclear plants is not something we should rule out.

Now, Theodore Roosevelt is our conservation champion, but he was not an anomaly, as some of our anti-environmental Republican friends sometimes insist.

Let me tell you the story of Herbert Hoover. They called him the Great Engineer. He was born in Iowa, raised an orphan in Oregon, studied geology at Stanford, and built a fortune on his own gumption. He and his wife Lou even spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. They would speak Chinese around the White House when they didn’t want the help to know what they were talking about.

He came into the White House with high hopes for a competent and dignified presidency, but today his memory seems forever tarred by the Great Depression and his ineffectual response to the calamity.

Unless you’re a Hoover scholar, you won’t know that he had an interesting conservationist streak in his political makeup. He expanded the size of our national park system by more than a third and he had some interesting ideas about conservation as a moral imperative, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Hoover established nine national monuments, including two in Colorado. His monuments protected some of the 
most famous landscapes in America. The Grand Canyon. White Sands in New Mexico. Death Valley in California. And what is now known as Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a monument proclaimed two days before Hoover left the White House.

Hoover proclaimed five monuments after he was defeated for re-election by FDR in 1932. Some might say those decisions were rushed through at the last minute, the sort of thing that caused trouble for some guy named Bill Clinton a few years ago.

Hoover was a complex man, one who valued individual freedom, opposed bureaucratic regimentation, and worked for a strong economy.

His thinking about conservation took an interesting turn in the 1920s, before he was elected president. While he supported material prosperity, he worried about material prosperity’s shadow side. He was concerned that Americans would lapse into a kind of moral decadence unless they were exposed to rigorous personal challenges.

Hoover believed that outdoor recreation was the cure for hedonistic excess. He believed that immersing oneself in outdoor recreation served as a moral tonic. Here is what he had to say about fishing:

“Tis the chance to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of the sun on the blue water. It brings meekness and inspiration from the decency of nature, charity toward tackle makers, patience toward fish, a mockery of profits and egos, a quieting of hate, a rejoicing that you do not have to decide a darned thing until next week. And it is discipline in the equality of men, for all men are equal before fish.”

Russell Kirk was an author who supplied the intellectual capital for traditional conservative thinking in the mid-20th century. He worried about us becoming slaves to creature comforts. He wrote:

“The thinking conservative … ought to contend with all his strength against this particular degradation of the American mind and heart. The conservative knows that material production and consumption are not the purpose of human existence.”

A generation later, similar moral imperatives drove a conservative Republican congressman to co-sponsor one of the great conservation achievements of our history: passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

How many here have heard of Congressman John Saylor? John Saylor’s portrait should be hung in the offices of every national forest, park, wildlife refuge, and BLM office responsible for managing the 677 designated wilderness areas our country is blessed with.

John Saylor hailed from the hardwood forests and blast furnaces of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He served in Congress from 1949 until his death in 1973. In addition to co-sponsoring the Wilderness Act, he led the fight for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He was an important leader in the fight against the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument. John Saylor hated dams … and being from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, it’s not hard to see why.

In 1956, Saylor stood on the floor of Congress and talked about why America needs to protect wilderness. His words are rooted in the conservative ideals of a conservative man.

He said wilderness is essential for national defense. Imagine that notion coming out of Tom DeLay’s mouth.
Here is what Saylor had to say about wilderness and national defense. “Shall we, exploiting all our resources, reduce also every last bit of our wilderness to roadsides of easy access and areas of convenience, and ourselves soften into an easy-going people deteriorating in luxury and ripening for the hardy conquerors of another century.”

We have to stay fit and vigorous, Saylor proclaimed. You hear that today, when lawmakers as politically diverse as Don Young from Alaska and George Miller of California are sponsoring the GO Act, the Get Outdoors Act, to buy more land through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

But physical health is not the only reason we need wilderness. We need it for our mental health, to give us respite from the clanging noise of our civilization, and to refresh our spirits.

Saylor said:

“There is a need for relief for jaded minds and tense nerves, a need for the restoration of peace and the reassurance of sanity. It is a need that for many people can best be met beyond the end of the road, away from the ring of the telephone, where electric lights cannot lengthen the strains of the day, but rather where early sleep rests a man to wake at dawn and know the inspiration of the sunrise as well as the colors of the sunset.”

What was he really saying here? Wilderness is a place of solitude and freedom from the noise and shackles of industrial civilization. Wilderness invites us to take a personal journey like Huck Finn’s and “light out for the territory.”

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, John Saylor spoke of wilderness and what is perhaps the most profound conservative ideal of them all – the need for humility, to see our place in a much larger world that is rather indifferent to our daily dramas, for acknowledging our faults, fallibilities and limitations, for avoiding hubris and leaving ourselves large margins.

As John Saylor said on the floor of Congress nearly half a century ago:

“In the wilderness, we can get our bearings. We can keep from getting blinded in our great human success to the fact that we are part of the life of this planet, and we would do well to keep our perspectives and keep in touch with some of the basic facts of life.”

Let’s delve a bit into what Saylor was saying here.

Wilderness is a reminder. Humanity arose and achieved its unique identity in the wild. Wilderness is a compass that points to our place in a sun-powered community of life that gives us climate, air, water, topsoil, food, medicine, and inspiration.

Wilderness is an inheritance. The wild is natural capital calling forth stewardship of the energy flows, gene pools, and symbioses that make life possible on the only habitable world we know.

Wilderness is a trust. Wild lands hold the irreplaceable in reserve and keep options open for the unknowable future.
Today, more and more of our country’s population live in ever-growing cities. Technology has become a ubiquitous feature of our lives – from the electronic alarm clock that nags us to awaken at an unnatural hour to that person on the trail who has to whip out his cell phone and tell all his friends that he just bagged another fourteener.

Now, technology has done many wonderful things for human civilization. No one who has delved into history would want to return to the pre-industrial days when dirty water, infectious disease, brutally hard labor, and short lives were the lot of too many people.

The argument is not that technology is bad. The argument is that over time we have allowed technology to separate us from a deeper understanding of larger natural forces that make our lives possible and worth living.
That’s a danger. We may get so wrapped up in our admiration for technology, so willing to see technology as an easy palliative for irresponsibility, that we lose sight of larger realities that ecology imposes.

We blithely approach thresholds that we should not cross. We start conducting unintended and uncontrolled science experiments on the only home we have.

So here we are.

We find ourselves stuck on an oil dependence treadmill that is running faster and faster. The politics of fear is kicking in, as we saw in this week’s vote on the Arctic refuge. We keep chasing our tails trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s ideas.

We see more pressure to accept disfigurement of uncommon wild landscapes as the unavoidable price to run faster on the treadmill.

We find ourselves hearing increasingly urgent alerts from scientists that our carbon emissions may push critical natural processes past dangerous tipping points that could change life as we know it forever – or as close to forever as you can get on a human scale.

The extended Western drought could be a harbinger of things to come. In many parts of Colorado, rainfall has decreased since 1900. Drier conditions will put forests under more stress, making them more susceptible to insects and disease. Drought will give a head start to fire, which may reboot forest ecosystems in ways beyond our experience.
Colorado’s world famous ski areas are worried and they ought to be. Aspen Skiing Company became the first ski resort owner to join the Chicago Climate Exchange. The Chicago Climate Exchange is a kind of test bed for a cap-and-trade emissions reduction program. The members include companies that realize, unlike many of the politicians in DC, that we can’t keep ignoring this climate problem forever.

Yet we see a stubborn resistance to acknowledging what the scientists are telling us and stubborn clinging to a belief that economically sensible reductions of carbon emissions are unquestionably impossible.

As writer Bill McKibben likes to say:

“The laws of Congress and the laws of physics are on a collision course, and the laws of physics are not likely to yield.”

A letter writer to the Summit Daily News wrote recently:

“Is the American way of life so dependent on consumption that the idea of conservation seems threatening and unpatriotic?”

We know how Theodore Roosevelt would answer that question.

And I know how you would answer that question.

As our civilization races around the track at higher and higher speeds, it is the role of true conservatives to raise the caution flag, to ask the hard questions. Are we being prudent? Are we avoiding the danger of taking too many chances with the natural systems that sustain our existence and enrich our lives? Are we leaving ourselves sufficient margins for error?

Bad habits depart reluctantly. Patients resist doctors’ warnings to change their ways, but delay only makes necessary change that much harder.

Phasing in a new, cleaner, more diverse energy menu will require enough maturity to imagine better alternatives and enough discipline to implement them.

Practicing maturity and discipline means establishing boundaries. Boundaries do not inhibit our freedom of action. Boundaries force us to break down mental walls and open the door to fresh thinking.

Leaving our wild places alone, just as they are, as nature made them, will establish one such boundary. In the wilderness, we will find the freedom to make good choices.