Jeremy Vesbach

Conservative Conservationists are a Rare Breed

Question: How many Republican environmentalists can you fit into a van? Answer: All of them.

OK, there were two vans -- and not every Republican attending the first annual "Wilderness for Conservatives" conference in Albuquerque last month crammed into one of these two vans to go on the full-day field trip to Bandelier National Monument.

But, the point of the joke stands.

Environmentalist Republicans -- at least of the elected variety -- are not only rare these days, they've nearly become an oxymoron. But one point remains clear in the minds of folks running the national organization now headquartered in Albuquerque: It wasn't always that way.

Republicans for Environmental Protection, or REP America, was founded seven years ago by three women who decided they were going to reform the Republican Party's views on wilderness conservation.

In fact, the perception that "real Republican" and "real environmentalist" are incompatible in the same person is a perception common enough to warrant discussion on REP America's website.

A page on the site asks: "How do we answer those who believe that no 'real Republican' wants to protect the environment or believes in conservation?" The answer, the site says, is to "point with pride to the great GOP leaders of the past" who fought to establish "many of the policies we take for granted today."

Listed among the leaders are Teddy Roosevelt, "who established our unmatched system of wildlife refuges and national parks," Barry Goldwater, "the father of conservatism" and also a REP America member and Richard Nixon, who signed federal laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency.

Today the group has about 2,000 members across the country and 23 of those members traveled from Wisconsin, Missouri, Washington, California, Colorado and other states to attend the Wilderness for Conservatives conference in downtown Albuquerque last December (REP America's sister group, the REP Environmental Educational Foundation, to which donations are tax-deductible, was the prime mover behind organizing the conference.)

The organization also boasts 15 Republican members of Congress, but none from New Mexico. "I wouldn't expect that she wants to join us," said the group's president, Martha Marks, referring to Albuquerque congresswoman Heather Wilson, "I haven't seen any indication of that."

For now they'll have to settle for state Rep. Pauline Gubbels, of Albuquerque, former New Mexico Governor Dave Cargo, and District 6 City Councilor Hess Yntema.

About 14 of the 23 REP America members attending the conference hiked in Bandelier National Forest on Friday, Dec. 6. Others on the field trip were wilderness advocates of the nonpartisan and Democrat varieties -- and at least a few of us were anxious to observe up close, question, maybe even understand this rare bird: the self-proclaimed environmentalist Republican.

Along about midday, hiking out of Bandelier Canyon with the pack of Republicans -- some of whom carried backpacks with Sierra Club insignia, some of whom were speaking passionately on behalf of the value of public lands -- a conference speaker, himself not a Republican, quietly advised me, "You might want to press these people a little, find out if they really are Republicans."

At the conference the next day Jim Scarantino, former president of REP America's New Mexico Chapter and current chairman of the Coalition for New Mexico's Wilderness, bristled while recounting to the audience a moment when he was introduced to fellow wilderness advocates as, "a Republican, but not a real Republican," because he really did believe in protecting wilderness.

Books could be written on how and why environmental protection became a partisan issue, and most REP America members have theories on the matter. In fact, most REP America members at the conference were on the high side of 50 years and recall once voting for Republicans strong on environmental protection.

However, REP America as an organization doesn't dwell on why most of the Republican Party turned away from environmental protection in favor of promoting industry. Instead the group focuses on remembering that the party did turn away.

To a much greater degree than remembering the past, however, the group focuses on reform -- turning the elephant green, turning the elephant around, getting the Republican Party back to its conservationist roots -- however you want to phrase it. The only topic at the conference discussed with greater frequency than fond remembrances of Teddy Roosevelt was the assertion that conservation is part and parcel of a real conservative ideology.

As a group, REP America opposed the appointment of Gale Norton to Secretary of the Interior. The group opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (and claims some credit in aiding those eight Republican senators who bucked the party leadership and voted against drilling). A group spokesman has called President Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative" a game of Uncle Sugar's crony capitalism. The group endorsed Arizona Senator John McCain in the presidential primaries. In fact, I heard very few kind words at all spoken about George W. Bush at this conference -- and I heard no kind words regarding the administration's environmental policies.

To be honest, I think a person could have walked through this crowd with a large sign reading "George Bush is not my president" and received more pats on the back than punches in the stomach. (Mind, that's an impression I came away with, although I didn't actually try carrying the sign.) However, neither did I hear a kind word spoken of Al Gore. And I don't think a person would have gotten a single pat on the back for a sign claiming Al Gore is our true president. This is a crowd for whom Teddy Roosevelt never truly stepped down. I mean this literally.

At the dinner reception Saturday night, after the main conference was over, the appearance of a surprise guest speaker was announced.

"Ladies and gentleman," said the Master of Ceremonies, "I give you the President of the United States!" And in walked a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator.

So what does President Bush think of REP America?

"I can tell you we are known by the administration and probably not liked," said Jim DiPeso, Policy Director for REP America. "How can I put this delicately? I've heard second- or third-hand that we are on Karl Rove's fertilizer' list. But that's OK. We think it's the height of patriotism to correct your leaders when they are erring."

Getting back to my joke about fitting all environmentalist Republicans into one van -- pure exaggeration when it comes to the average voter -- however, not so far off if you want to talk about elected Republicans in office at the moment.

The only active political presence to attend Wilderness for Conservatives was a staff person for Republican Rep. Heather Wilson. Pete Domenici's office was contacted but never replied. John Sanchez, who made an unsuccessful Republican bid for governor of New Mexico and may run for head of the Republican Party of New Mexico, hasn't responded to repeated attempts from REP America to contact him.

As for Heather Wilson, while she did send a representative to the conference, it should also be noted that in 2002 she made the League of Conservation Voters' "Dirty Dozen" list for one of the worst environmental voting records in congress. Wilson even sponsored a bill that would have opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to widespread drilling, a position anathema to environmentalists of all stripes. To my questions about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and request for an interview, Wilson's office responded with this statement:

"We've made tremendous progress in the last 20 years cleaning up our air, water and land and there's no turning back. Congresswoman Wilson thinks the good news is, we don't have to lose the progress we've made in conservation. REP America and Heather agree that we need a balanced, long-term energy policy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and preserve the beauty of the land we love. As with any group, they may not be eye to eye with Congresswoman Wilson on every single issue, but that's OK. That's how our democracy works."

A statement that, to some, is politician for, "Drill away, boys!"

The Green Elephant

Reforming the White House's current views on energy and the environment is hardly easy to say, much less actually do.

In a keynote address delivered before a collection of environmental groups at a gathering called the Wild Rockies Rendezvous near Missoula, Montana in 1999, Martha Marks, likened the task ahead (putting the conserve back in conservative) to "pushing a pea up the side of Trapper Peak with your nose."

Trapper Peak is a mountain visible from where Martha Marks made the speech. I once lived near the mountain and climbed it one time. I supposed pushing a pea up the high rocky summit with your nose might be possible, but before a person tried it, they'd have to come up with a damn good reason.

"Why?" is a common question asked of Martha Marks regarding the organization she founded. Why fight it? If environmentalism has become a partisan issue -- as it appears to have become, with Democrats for protection and Republicans for mining, drilling and pollution -- then why stick with the exploitation party? Why strain to turn the ship around when there is already another ship headed in the other direction? Dare it be asked: Why not become a Democrat?

"A lot of people -- a lot of reporters -- have asked me that same question," Marks said, "and I'll tell you what I've told them. I've always been very conservative. I grew up in a military family. The first time I voted, I voted for Richard Nixon in 1968. And I've voted Republican almost straight through since. I'm pro-defense. I believe in individual responsibility and smaller government. ... And it is not foreign to us Republicans to be good conservationists."

Marks, like most REP America members at the conference, wouldn't comment on her stance regarding hot-button issues such as abortion and gun control, preferring instead to keep the group's focus centered solely on conservation.

More telling than Marks' stance on nonenvironmental issues, however, is her own success as a politician running on the platform of a "Green Republican." She spent 16 years in academia as a Spanish professor before beginning her political career. She first got "politicized" in a fight to save a golf course in Lake County, Illinois from development. Marks doesn't golf, but describes the course as, "One heck of a beautiful golf course, with a couple dozen big stands of old burr oaks and shagbark hickories, a natural stream meandering through and sweeping meadows of prairie wildflowers."

Marks was on the losing side and the golf course was turned into a housing development in the end, but the fight inspired her to run against the chairman of the county commission in the next election, a person whom everyone, even his friends, called "Bulldozer Bob," according to Marks.

"When my husband, Bernie, found out what I'd agreed to do, and that I'd be running against a well-connected establishment-type Republican from a neighboring village, who had already won several elections and would have all the pro-development money and endorsements behind him, Bernie's first reaction was: Poor fellow! He's not going to know what hit him!'" Marks related in her Wild Rockies Rendezvous keynote address.

Running as a green Republican, on a platform of fiscal responsibility and slow-growth, Marks won 72 percent of the vote in the Republican primary election, easily knocking off Bulldozer Bob. After three terms pulling in similar percentages, Marks recently retired as county commissioner and has recently moved permanently to New Mexico.

An Endangered Species

It would seem that green Republicans don't have to answer the question "Why?" When instead they only have to point to the numbers. One of Marks' favorite set of numbers comes from a poll completed in 1995, the year she and two other women formed REP America. The poll found that 55 percent of Republican voters did not trust their own party to do the right thing when it comes to the environment, she said.

Polls show that even rural Republican voters in western states prefer environmental protection over development by clear majorities, according to Marks. However, she said, people tend to vote on other issues. Throw campaign contributions from extractive industries into the political mix and headlines such as "Industry Seeking Rewards From GOP-Led Congress" from the Dec. 3 issue of the New York Times result. The story's subhead read, "Around the country, businesses and industries that donated millions of dollars to elect Republicans are mapping out strategies to take advantage of the party's sweep in Washington."

REP America doesn't have the kind of money to influence big elections through campaign contributions. Instead, the group is relying on what Marks calls a "powerful voice" that comes from a "powerful argument."

It won't be easy. As Marks also says, "Right now the pro-environment Republican may be the most endangered species on Capitol Hill."

Jeremy Vesbach is a regular contributor to Alibi who writes on water conservation and use issues in New Mexico.