Voyage of Rediscovery: The Republican Party’s Conservation Tradition

By MARTHA MARKS

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha gave this speech to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s annual conference in Cody, Wyoming, on June 8, 2007.

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It’s always humbling to address people whose work focuses on a specific place or cause, especially when I don’t live in that specific place or focus on that specific cause. I appreciate the opportunity, however, and hope that my remarks today will not only be of use to your cause but also offer you some insights into the cause that I have chosen to champion.

Months ago, more or less off the top of my head, I told the Greater Yellowstone Coalition staff that they could advertise my talk as “Voyage of Rediscovery: The Republican Party’s Conservation Tradition.” It’s funny, but the more I’ve thought about that metaphor, the more appropriate it seems to be.

We all know the story of Lewis and Clark’s epic Voyage of Discovery, 200 years ago. Undaunted Courage shows us the challenges and hardships they endured—the bears, rattlesnakes and mosquitoes; the bogs, near starvation, harsh winters and lengthy portages—and also the Wow! moments that lifted their spirits. Imagine being the first European-Americans to see the Bitterroot, Great Falls, the wide Missouri, the Columbia Gorge. The thought of laying eyes on all of those spectacular wild places—and many more—does boggle the mind!

My husband, Bernie, and I are on something of a Voyage of Discovery of our own right now. Rediscovery would be a better term. It was exactly 10 years ago that we last experienced Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Starting tomorrow, we’ll take a few days to rest and recreate, build new memories and deepen our appreciation of those special places, which all of you are fortunate to know so well.

I have to tell you… Bernie and I did find ourselves commiserating with Lewis and Clark on Wednesday as we drove north from Santa Fe to Fort Collins, facing the challenges and hardships of choosing which fast-food outlet to stop at and wondering how much our next tank of gas would cost. Like earlier generations of explorers, we said, Wow! as we spotted Pike’s Peak, although it’s hard to feel much awe while navigating the road construction and sprawl of Colorado Springs and Denver. It’s even harder to imagine how truly awesome such places must have seemed a century or two ago.

I also have to tell you that, not by coincidence, I’m in the middle of two other epic journeys right now. You won’t be surprised to learn that they overlap in many ways.

One is the Voyage of Discovery that began 12 years ago this spring when three Republican women—including me—met by chance at an environmental conference in Maryland and left determined to create an organization called Republicans for Environmental Protection.

I feel sure that an organization like yours—focused as it is on protecting the greater Yellowstone ecosystem—must attract many Republicans. Plenty of Western Republicans are doing serious conservation work on their own land. Republicans are among the major supporters of The Nature Conservancy and local land trusts. GOP hunters and anglers have always been conservationists. The greatest GOP conservationists are legendary: Roosevelt. Rockefeller. And, heaven help us… Nixon. So it wasn’t really strange that three conservation-minded Republican women would find each other at a conservation-oriented conference. But to our deep regret, the official Republican establishment of the time didn’t seem to share our ethic.

It was March of 1995, the first quarter of the Newt Gingrich “Revolution.” Like lots of other people, we three weren’t sure if the landmark ‘60s and ‘70s environmental laws were going to survive. As we got acquainted, we talked about how somebody out there needed to restore the GOP’s conservation tradition and environmental ethic so those would be bipartisan values once again. After a few days of conversation, we three concluded: We are somebody. The rest is history.

Republicans for Environmental Protection—or simply REP—is a 501(c)(4) non-profit that now has members in 49 states, official chapters in 10 states, and a professional staff of six. It has grown and evolved slowly over the past decade as a result of that by-chance meeting in Maryland.

I call the experience of building a national organization from scratch and on a shoestring—without benefit of “Big Name, Big Money” founders, foundation grants, tax-deductible gifts, or encouragement of any sort from the Republican establishment—a voyage of discovery. None of us had ever tackled anything so challenging as this project of transforming a national political party.

We certainly didn’t know in 1995 what an upstream-swimming experience it would turn out to be.

Whereas Lewis and Clark merely had to battle cold, hunger, mosquitoes, bogs, grizzlies and rattlesnakes, we at REP have had to fight the oil and gas industry, the Bush administration, Senator Ted Stevens, Congressman Tom DeLay, radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News.

In 1805, the intrepid explorers with Lewis and Clark experienced the Wow! of discovering the Yellowstone River and the Bitterroot Mountains. In 2005, we at REP experienced the Wow! of being widely credited—by the likes of The Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows, no less—as the group most responsible that year for saving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from America’s insatiable thirst for oil. There have been other Wow! moments too, but that was undoubtedly the sweetest.

The other epic journey that I’m in the middle of right now is the Voyage of Rediscovery that is taking place within the Republican Party. If anything has seemed at times to be more challenging than building REP, it’s bringing about a change of heart within the GOP. But a change does appear to be happening now. There’s evidence that REP has had a lot to do with that change, which is enough to give me my own personal Wow! feeling.

Travel back with me, if you will, to the spring of 1995. The Republicans have taken control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years, winning on the strength of a “Contract With America” filled with focus group-tested language. Conservatives are naturally drawn to concepts like smaller government and regulatory reform, and the country is in an increasingly conservative mood. Nobody in power in Washington—not the Clinton administration, not the Democratic Congressional majority, not the minority Republicans—has paid much attention to conservation or environmental protection since the Clean Air Act was reauthorized in 1990. Such issues play almost no role in the 1994 election. And 21st century concerns like energy security and global warming are well off in the future… nowhere to be seen right now.

But the 1994 Contract With America—which has just propelled Republicans into control of Congress—does contain some worrisome provisions about endangered species and public lands. It is those provisions, plus an obvious apathy about conservation and environmental protection at the highest levels of our party, that lead to the creation of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

In 2000, when REP was barely four years old, we decided to make an endorsement in the GOP presidential primary. We prepared a thoughtful, nicely-printed questionnaire, which we sent to each candidate. We included several questions about energy. (And as an aside, I’m proud to say we were ahead of much of the country on that issue.)

After six months of studying the field of candidates, we came to the conclusion that there was one who shared our concerns, had a distinguished track record in office, and was on the right page on most of our issues. It was sad, but there clearly was only one GOP presidential candidate we considered “endorsable.”

If I had to pick the greatest Wow! moment of REP’s first five years, I’d point to early February of 2001, when four REP leaders met at the Phoenix airport with Senator John McCain. We had endorsed him the month before and were now having our first personal meeting with him.

The senator was on his way home for a few days of R&R after his win in the New Hampshire primary. The air was electric as McCain, his wife and a couple of aides came into the room where we were waiting. The senator bounced around, shaking hands with each of us.

“What do I tell ‘em about global warming?” was literally the first thing out of his mouth. “Everywhere I go,” he said, “people are asking me about global warming. I need a good Republican answer! Can you help me?”

I looked at my colleagues, swallowed hard, and said,

“Senator, we’ll get you a paper on that right away.”

And I’m proud to say we did. Thanks to REP’s Policy Director Jim DiPeso—who was on our board at that time— we FedExed a ground-breaking, GOP-oriented paper on global warming to his campaign office within a week. That paper has been posted on REP’s web site ever since, as our official Climate Change Policy Paper (PDF download).

From that point on, we watched with pride as McCain began stepping out in front on this issue, including many of our suggestions in his own talking points. Even after he lost the primaries, he kept up the drumbeat on global warming.

He held the first-ever Senate hearings on global warming that spring of 2001. A couple of years later, he co-sponsored the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. And although McCain-Lieberman didn’t pass, it was one of this country’s first meaningful proposals to curb global warming. McCain is out with a new bill this spring, the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2007, only this time he’s not alone. His new bill has three other prominent Republican senators as co-sponsors. And for several years, McCain has personally led groups of senators of both parties to Antarctica and Alaska, to see for themselves the melting polar ice and understand its causes and effects.

Now, I know some cynics out there must be thinking: What good did all that do? McCain hasn’t occupied the White House these past six years. Bush has. And all REP’s endorsement of McCain accomplished was to alienate the future president. “With us or against us,” you know. And McCain’s chances aren’t looking too good at this point in the 2008 presidential election.

So… where does that leave our “green GOP” movement now? Where does that leave the concern for global warming that REP helped McCain bring to the forefront back in 2001?

The answer is: in better shape than you might think. I’d like to spend my last few minutes telling you about that.

Everybody knows that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been leading the charge toward energy efficiency, fighting the federal government for the right to reduce his state’s auto emissions and stave off global warming. But hey, that’s “liberal” California. What else could we expect?

Except… the same thing is happening elsewhere, including in many conservative bastions. Truth is, the states are where the global warming challenges are being met, and that’s a good thing, since the administration seem to be stuck in a bog. Even the Supreme Court has agreed with a dozen states’ argument that the EPA needed to do something proactive to control all four greenhouse gases.

Connecticut’s Republican governor, Jodi Rell, recently joined Schwarzenegger in an op-ed scolding the Bush administration for its intransigence and urging the states to step up in fighting global warming.

Florida’s new Republican governor, Charlie Crist, was way out in front of other candidates in advocating action to battle climate change… because he knows his state will be one of the first to get swamped, so to speak.

The Republican governor of another low-lying state, South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, published an op-ed in the Washington Post a few months ago saying that global warming is real and human caused, and that conservatives ought to take the lead in fighting it.
And Gov. Sanford isn’t just writing. He’s empowered a Climate Change Commission to find ways to improve his state operations.

Chairing the Commission is State Senator John Courson, a long-time REP member, I’m proud to say.

So… are Govs. Schwarzenegger, Rell, Crist and Sanford just part of the “loonie fringe,” way out in front of their GOP constituents? Hardly.

The members and leaders of Evangelical Christian churches—that bastion of grassroots Republican power—are increasingly vocal about the need to do something to combat global warming. Men like the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, and the Rev. Bill Vanderbush, pastor of Grace Church in Maui… all have become outspoken advocates for action.

Let me focus for a moment on South Carolina. GOP pollster Whit Ayres reported in February that 56 percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters—some of the most religious, conservative, politically active people in the nation—said that global warming was a serious, man-made problem that should be dealt with by cap-and-trade restrictions and other economic measures. An even higher percentage, 71 percent, agreed that global warming is serious but didn’t agree on any particular remedy for solving it.

Other polls are showing similar results, with higher percentages in some states.

Even Newt Gingrich—whose anti-environmental “revolution” helped launch REP and who confessed as early as 1999 that under his leadership the GOP had “blown it on the environment”—is now a global warming convert. In his much-ballyhooed “debate” with Democratic Senator John Kerry last month, there was little difference between the two on global warming. Gingrich is promoting his new concept, which he calls “green conservatism.”

My reaction when I heard that was:

“Hey, Newt, where have you been?”

Most interesting to me is the fact that President Bush has finally started talking about the need to reduce greenhouse gases and fight global warming. The jury’s out on his sincerity. Maybe he’s just trying to kick the can down the road. Certainly, the anti-enviros who dominate conservative radio and TV are hoping that’s the case. However, the fact that Mr. Bush has officially accepted something that he rejected for so long makes me believe that the next Republican president, and the next generation of GOP leaders, will stand up and do what’s right for our country and our world.

As for REP… like Lewis and Clark, we still face long portages over rocky shoals, reactionary rattlesnakes lurking in the bushes, and global warming deniers seeking to draw us into their bogs. But I predict that REP will eventually succeed in its mission of growing a greener GOP from the ground up… thereby restoring a tradition of bipartisanship that once was strong and never should have been lost.

I’d like to conclude with a quote from Meriwether Lewis on July 3, 1805, because it aptly sums up how we at REP feel about our current situation and ongoing battle.

Lewis said:

“We all believe that we are now about to enter on the most perilous and difficult part of our voyage, yet I see no one repining. All appear ready to meet those difficulties which await us with resolution and becoming fortitude.”

To which we at REP say: Wow! and Amen!

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