Republicans and the Environment

By Theodore Roosevelt IV

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This was the lead article in the summer 1997 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter.

One of President Theodore Roosevelt’s best friends once said to him: “Theodore, if there is one thing more than another for which I admire you, it is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.” I suspect that, after my speech today, you will say this is a family failing.

In fact, I warn you now that I am here to raise hell, and it is my firm desire to inspire you to do the same. Of course, that’s a two-edged sword: you may end up raising hell with me and sharpening that second edge for my benefit. Nonetheless, I’ll say it: I want us— moderate Republicans and conservatives— to let out a roar of protest against the 104th Congress and their shameful lack of knowledge and leadership on one of the most important issues of our time: the protection of our nation’s environmental health and resources—the very foundation of a strong economy and national security.

We cannot remain a strong nation if we play Russian Roulette with the health of our agricultural lands, our fish and livestock, our air and water, and ultimately the health of our children. We cannot remain a strong nation when we give away, literally give away, our riches— our minerals, timber, and water— through wrong-headed and unfair subsidies that rob our people and further pollute our lands.

I am angry and tired of hearing Republicans position the debate as a choice between property rights and wildlife, jobs and pollution, economic strength or environmental health. This is a disgrace; it polarizes the American people to their own disadvantage and the nation’s.

Yes, Americans want a less intrusive, more cost effective government—a government that works as hard as they do with less rhetoric and more resolution. But, does that mean we want to see the return of poisons like DDT, that we want the EPA eviscerated, that we want a firesale of our national parks, that we want dirtier air and water, or that we think it is in any way morally defensible, by the lights of Representative Don Young, to chop down a bald eagle’s nesting tree as long as we first frighten it into flight? But that seems to be an apt metaphor for the Republicans’ approach to regulatory reform — get out the buzz saw!

Is this what Republicans voted for? Here’s what one Republican answered in a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times: “Please give me back the Democrats! They only wanted to take my money to give to their favored constituents. These Republicans want to take my health, my quality of life, and the natural heritage my children and I might enjoy.”

In a poll taken by a Republican pollster, 55% of Republican voters said they don’t trust our party to take care of the environment, whereas 72% of Democrats do trust their party to take care of it. In fact, as some of you may be aware, a grassroots group called Republicans for Environmental Protection recently formed to fight Republican-led anti-environmental initiatives.

Not only is the environmental stance of the 104th Congress stupid politics—far, far worse, it is disastrous and indefensible public policy: a betrayal of the very definition of conservative, a betrayal of our party’s remarkable history of leadership on the environment, a betrayal of our current environmental leaders like Representative Boehlert or Senator Chafee, and most importantly, it is a betrayal of our children.

Which brings me to another consideration: the extent of what the 104th Congress placed in jeopardy. Over the last 200 years, the United States has lost more than 50% of its wetlands, 99% of its tallgrass prairies, and virtually all of its native oak savannas. And these statistics say nothing about our rivers, coastal zones, and estuaries. Clean air and water should be the mother’s milk and apple pie of most reasonable policymakers, and more pressure can and should be brought to bear on Congress in that regard. But much of today’s controversy revolves around the preservation of species and habitat, or biodiversity.

What does Don Young have to say about it? “What I should have done is repealed the whole Endangered Species Act. Right quick. Before anybody realized what had happened.”

But let’s hear what the Northwest regional director of the Federation of Fisherman’s Associations has to say about it: “We’re no bunch of environmentalists, but we have 106 salmon runs already extinct in the Northwest and 214 runs at risk. Unless land-use policies that are driving salmon to the brink of extinction are changed, we will lose 9 out of 10 salmon species.”

Congress seems to be stymied by the question: Why regulate human behavior to preserve non-human species and habitats? Well, let’s take a look at something we all take for granted—pollinators and the free service they provide: $30 billion a year in U.S. crops depend on bees, butterflies and moths. And they are disappearing in record numbers. The Department of Agriculture sees a “pollination crisis” on the horizon. Habitat fragmentation is one of the key problems. Where development has replaced flowers and fields with spans of concrete, energy depleted pollinators are starving to death. Hopefully, that is not a portend for our own species.

Here’s another agricultural imperative for the preservation of habitat. When wetland, forests, and grasslands are destroyed, the result is often erosion, compacting, salinization—in short, the loss of arable land. It is estimated that as much as one fifth of the world’s cropland is suffering from some form of radical deterioration. Arable land and topsoil are limited global resources. We are currently exploiting nearly all the planet’s best agricultural lands, and, unfortunately, while the bombast of Congress might make for good fertilizer, no one has figured out a way yet to make topsoil.

But Don Young and Frank Murkowski actually consider extinction to be a valid conservation objective. They argue that extinction is, after all, a tool of evolution. I would point out that, barring cataclysmic events, evolution has used that tool much more conservatively than our Republican representatives would have us do. Currently, the world is experiencing 1000 times the rate of extinction that should normally occur.

When humankind evolved, the number of species on Earth was at its peak; today, we are approaching the lowest species levels since the end of the age of dinosaurs. This is not a good sign. The natural world which we now inhabit bears little resemblance to the one in which we successfully evolved. Not only are we clearcutting our way through the tropics and into exposure to new diseases, like ebola and more virulent strains of malaria, but as we do so we are losing our storehouse of potential cures and treatments. Fifty-seven percent of our medicinal arsenal comes from plants, and only 5% of the known species in the world have been studied chemically.

Whenever Congress tries to balance the budget, they look toward discretionary programs, which actually comprise a ridiculously small, though vulnerable, portion of the total. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species budget for 1996, for instance, was $57 million; one C-17 transport plane costs $300 million. The national wildlife refuge system operates with less money per employee and per acre than any other federal land-management agency, and they are all dismally underfunded.

We got ourselves into debt while giving away our resources, and, in my opinion, we should get ourselves out of debt by practicing some real fiscal austerity and taking on the hard choices, not by continuing to rob future generations of our natural heritage.

The goal of reform, whatever shape that reform ultimate takes, must be the strengthening of our environmental protections and the preservation of our environmental health.


Credit line for this speech in the summer 1997 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter: “Theodore Roosevelt IV is managing director of Lehman Brothers, a New York investment banking company, and also a member of REP. This excerpt comes from a speech delivered to the Women’s National Republican Club on October 8, 1996, at the end of the 104th Congress. REP is grateful to Mr. Roosevelt for letting us publish this abbreviated version of his speech.”

In addition to this speech, you can also read on our website “The Legacy of Pelican Island,” which Mr. Roosevelt delivered at a REP’s first Republican Environmental Summit in Orlando, Florida in 1999. REP then published it in the spring 2000 issue of The Green Elephant newsletter.