Environment

There's No Reason Liberals and Conservatives Can't Work Together to Save the Environment—in Many Ways, They Already Do

Today's Green movement can learn a lot from the bipartisan success of land conservation in America.

Vector illustration of the United States flag made up of tree leaves in different shades of green
Photo Credit: Fejas/Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the book Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016):

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Partisan politics is largely responsible for creating the culture where hostility to environmentalism took root, and thus political leadership, particularly on the right, is now required to restore a culture of conservation. To “change [the] culture and save it from itself” we must refresh the core conservative belief that each of us has a moral duty not to steal from the commons or our common future, either by use of resources we haven’t paid for or by the imposition of costs on future generations. Promotion of this common conviction should not be a heavy lift, as the values that are its source already are embedded deeply in America’s civil, religious, and political culture. It will require a reinvigorated Green movement that can articulate these values in a compelling way and inspire Americans to embrace them. It also will require political leaders willing to feed the public’s hunger for bipartisan action and effective government by advancing a moderate but meaningful Green agenda designed to appeal to the mass of nonpartisan Americans. This moderate but meaningful agenda, a path forward through the paralyzing eddies of the hyperpartisan vortex, is what I refer to as Center Green.

A key to understanding Center Green is to understand what it is not. First, it is not ideologically centrist. It is not ideological at all, but looks both to right and left for pragmatic solutions that would be acceptable to both sides. Center Green is not a new paradigm or a specific initiative like the Breakthrough Institute’s ambitious “Apollo Project.” I am not proposing, as many of the Post-Greens do, to “look beyond the issue categories of the past and embrace a grand new vision for the future.” The Green movement has had a propensity to propose ever-grander and more comprehensive solutions, exactly the kinds of revolutionary nonincremental change that traditionalist conservatives so distrust. Time and time again we have seen conservatives run the other way when told that climate change mandates the rapid implementation of a “grand new vision.” In contrast, Center Green is a modest change in approach rooted in the way America is, and not a utopian vision of what it could become. It is, above all, pragmatic and nonideological; policy is measured not by whether it is the optimum solution, but by the two-part test of whether it would make a meaningful contribution to an environmental problem and whether it is achievable politically.

To those who say that making common cause between liberals and conservatives will be too difficult in practice, I point to one corner of the Green movement where liberals and conservatives already work happily together in 1,700 Green organizations in forty-nine states. What is this proven working model of Center Green?

Here’s a quiz: What environmental legislation was supported by the National Rifle Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and sixty-one other groups? What environmental tax incentive appeared in both President Bush’s FY2009 budget and President Obama’s FY2010 budget? What environmental legislation in the 112th Congress—by some measures the most partisan in history—attracted a bipartisan coalition of 339 senators and representatives, and was cosponsored by the majority of both Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives? What tax bill had more cosponsors than any other tax bill in the 113th Congress? What is one of the very few things that President Obama and the House Republicans came together to support in 2014? The answer to all of these questions is the same: legislation providing a tax incentive for farmers, ranchers, and other property owners to conserve their lands through the donation of a conservation easement to a land trust or governmental organization. And therein lies a story.

Over the same quarter century when environmentalism as a whole was crippled by the Great Estrangement [a conservative movement dominated by those deeply suspicious of Green goals and hostile to virtually all policies advocated by environmentalists], one part of the Green movement—land conservation—grew rapidly, enjoyed victories at the ballot box and in state legislatures around the country, received bipartisan support in Congress, attracted grassroots enthusiasm in both the red and blue parts of the country, and achieved its goals with greater success than even its staunchest proponents had dared to imagine. In the thirty years between 1980 and 2010, land groups permanently protected about fifty million acres of conservation lands, about the same area as is protected by the entire National Park Service, and equal to the land areas of the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut combined. The organizations responsible for this success, land trusts, grew from only a handful in 1980 to about 1,700 today. How did this happen, and what lessons does the story hold for the Green movement today?

The land, water, and air that make up the environment on this planet are all essential for human life, and the quality of each is closely correlated to human health and quality of life. The modern environmental movement has been associated in the public mind mainly with only two of the three: protection of the quality of water and air. But from the origins of the Republic to well into the twentieth century conservation focused primarily on land, the home place of humans. Americans did not need scientists to explain the scarcity and thus preciousness of the land. Will Rogers put it succinctly—“Buy land, they ain’t making any more of the stuff”—and everyone understood exactly what he meant. Issues of the allocation and use of land were core political issues from the earliest days of European settlement. And a core strain of that political conversation has been the question of whether all land should be regarded as a commercial commodity to be allocated and used solely in accordance with the dictates of the market, or whether some land should be treated differently and set aside for the public benefit. In 1634, for example, Bostonians (at least the male heads of household who had the vote) voted to tax themselves to fund the purchase of the Boston Common—valuable urban land that would be dedicated to providing the community with shared benefits, initially military training and common pasturage, and eventually recreation.

For most of our history, this instinct to set aside land for the public benefit was given its main expression by governmental action to acquire land for the public, such as the bold decision to carve out the heart of Manhattan to create Central Park, and the equally farsighted move to protect Yosemite as a state park in 1864, Yellowstone as a national park in 1872, and the other national parks that followed. America’s vast stock of federal lands other than parks resulted from the unique history of our national expansion westward. The federal government acquired title to frontier lands from the original thirteen colonies as well as original title to the massive areas purchased from Spain, France, and others. Even today, vast tracts of land in the West (typically 20–40 percent of a western state, and over 60 percent of Idaho, Utah, and Nevada) are maintained in public ownership, principally through the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Much of that land is leased to ranchers and otherwise exploited by private enterprise for its timber and mineral resources, and thus is not managed primarily for conservation purposes. Even so, the extensive federal holdings of land in the west led to public frustration at having to deal with a distant bureaucracy as landlord and regulator, which frustration then morphed into ideological antipathy to public ownership and became a contributing cause of the Great Estrangement.

Although public land conservation was caught up in the ideological tempest of the Great Estrangement, its far-less-well-known little sister, private land conservation, was left largely unscathed. Fittingly, private land conservation in America started with our great proponent of agrarian virtue and limited government, Thomas Jefferson. In 1774, Jefferson acted alone to preserve one of the great natural features of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the so-called Natural Bridge. He purchased the land for the primary purpose of protecting this unique landscape feature and during his life brought many visitors to admire it. In 1815, when pressured to sell the property, Jefferson declined, explaining: “I view it in some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced or masked from public view.” As in so many things, Jefferson was prescient, and his idea of private land held “as a public trust” would come, two centuries later, to animate a vigorous private land conservation movement that itself served as a “natural bridge” between twenty-first-century Jeffersonian skeptics of big government and the left-tilting environmental movement as a whole.

Excerpted from Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich. Copyright © 2016 by Frederic C. Rich. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Frederic C. Rich is an author and environmentalist. He serves as head of the New York State Environmental Leaders Group, Chair of the Foundation for Landscape Studies and the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, Vice Chair of the national Land Trust Alliance and The Battery Conservancy, and director of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust. He is the winner of the Battery Urban Farmer Award (from The Battery Conservancy, for promotion of urban agriculture, 2012), the Environmental Advocates of New York Advocates Award (for environmental advocacy in New York State, 2011), and the Frances Reese Medal (from Scenic Hudson, for service to the Hudson Valley, 2010).

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