The Emerging Environmental Majority
There's a thaw in relations between greens and hunters. It could heat up big-time over global warming. From Washington Monthly - May, 2006
By Christina Larson, Managing Editor
Today's GOP-controlled Congress has shown itself to be no friend of the environment, but even by conservatives' own standards, last October's surprise was a standout. An amendment inserted at the last minute into a budget reconciliation bill would have opened up millions of acres of public lands, including tracts in national monuments and wilderness areas, to purchase by mining companies and other commercial interests. It was to be the biggest divestiture of public lands in almost a century, and it was happening completely under the radar, with no floor vote, no public hearings, and no debate.
Washington's environmental community was the first to notice the amendment and sound the alarm. Staffers at Earthworks, the Wilderness Society, and other green advocacy groups identified lands in the crosshairs and called allies in the Senate, where the measure could still be defeated. It didn't take much prodding before western Democrats were united against the provision. But to stop the land sales, Republican senators would also need to speak out. That was a harder sell. Many conservatives accept large campaign contributions from mining, oil, and gas companies, and they tend to favor more industry access to public lands and resources. In addition, western Republicans don't take advice from national environmental groups, whose members tend to be urban and suburban liberals—not exactly their voters.
But there are outdoor organizations whose members include voters who can draw conservatives' attention. After an Earthworks staffer tipped off a counterpart at Trout Unlimited, the sportsmen's group (whose membership is two to one Republican) emailed its roughly 100,000 members and contacted regional editorial boards to spotlight the fight. News spread like wildfire—western sportsmen were outraged that public lands where they hunt and fish might be put on the auction block. Once they knew the stakes, local hook-and-bullet organizations held phone-bank days, organized letter-writing campaigns, and scheduled visits to regional Senate offices. A petition signed by 758 sportsmen's clubs affiliated with National Wildlife Federation, from the Great Falls Bowhunters Association to the Custer Rod and Gun Club, landed on elected officials' desks in Washington just weeks later. "These lands, so important to sportsmen and women, are open to every American, rich and poor alike," the letter read. "We believe it is wrong to put them up for mining companies and other commercial interests to buy at cut-rate prices."
The outcry from rural and exurban voters achieved what no amount of lobbying from environmentalists in Washington alone could have. Within weeks, western Republican senators renounced the measure on the Senate floor and to their hometown newspapers. As Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) told the Billings Gazette, "The local folks most impacted by a sale have to be on board." The measure was then effectively dead—within weeks the language was withdrawn from the House bill.
This victory marked a telling moment of cooperation between hunters and environmentalists, a working partnership once as unlikely as Madeleine Albright and Jesse Helms. Environmental policies have become increasingly popular over the past few years. Seventy-five percent of Americans in a 2005 Harris poll agreed with the statement, "Protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high, and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost." Yet a shrinking minority of voters are willing to associate themselves with the loaded term "environmentalist." In the same poll, only 12 percent claimed that label. Americans like green, but they are less fond of greens. And that has been doubly true for outdoorsmen.
Over the past five years, though, Bush administration policies in the west—accelerating drilling on public lands and waiving protections on water quality and wildlife—have given this odd couple a common enemy. "The White House's pillaging of public lands has driven hunters and ranchers into the trenches with environmentalists," says David Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society. "There's absolutely no question about what's brought us closer together," agrees Oregon hunter and prominent outdoor columnist Pat Wray. "It's the Bush administration." This is particularly true in western states like Montana, where the Wilderness Society worked alongside local hunters and outfitters in 2004 to overturn plans to allow drilling in the Rocky Mountain Front, a unique big-game habitat known as "America's Serengeti." Similar coalitions have formed around New Mexico's Valle Vidal, Colorado's Roan Plateau, Wyoming's Powder River Basin, and elsewhere—uniting the environmentalists' policy, legal, and media expertise with sportsmen's deep knowledge of a particular place and ability to speak a language that resonates locally.
These struggles may pale in comparison to the brewing battle over global warming. As more red-state farmers find their crops affected by rising temperatures, more ice fishermen notice lakes that no longer freeze in the winter, and more hunters see wetlands where ducks breed begin to evaporate, concern about climate change is crossing old political boundaries. Although they may have diverse starting points and dramatically different reactions to labels like "environmentalist," liberal and conservative outdoor activists are discovering that on a range of issues, their concerns about the earth overlap. In many ways, this brings them full-circle to the beginning of America's environmental movement. If today's new alliances become a lasting coalition, the union could not only recast American politics with a progressive tilt but have vast implications for the health of the planet.
Americans' environmental awareness has grown over the last century and a half, accelerating in times of ecological crises that drew citizens from all walks of life into the cause. The first significant stirrings appeared in the late 19th century, when the seemingly endless open wilderness of the country was rapidly vanishing, and what remained showed signs of being ravaged. An eastern timber shortage threatened development; hydraulic mining pulverized California mountainsides; buffalo bones littered the Badlands. In 1864, historian George Perkins Marsh published his seminal book, Man and Nature, which linked the collapse of ancient civilizations to frittering away their natural resources. Three decades later, Frederick Jackson Turner articulated his now-famous theory that Americans' most noble instincts (endurance, individualism, and egalitarian impulses), were wrought by the experience of the frontier, already a fading memory.
It was an uncertain moment, when the scales might tip either toward conservation or catastrophic breakdown. There was little precedent for federal intervention, and the idea of Washington owning land and managing resources rubbed against American libertarian impulses. But to an influential few the notion of saving today to provide for tomorrow sounded like a damn good idea.
It's no accident that the early conservation icons—including Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and George Bird Grinnell—were hunters, steeped in the tradition of the gentleman sportsman. Hunting manuals of the time were part memoir, part natural history, part chivalric code, emphasizing the sportsman's responsibility to kill honorably (shooting birds on the ground was considered gauche) and to ensure the continuity of game species. This imperative led sportsmen in the 1870s and 1880s to lobby for the nation's first laws to protect wildlife: limits on game seasons, an end to commercial slaughter of wildlife, and protection of watersheds in New York's Adirondacks forests.
The once-radical notion of conservation was first introduced to the general public through a handful of national newspapers devoted to hunting, fishing, and natural history. When Forest & Stream editor Grinnell sent a reporter to Yellowstone in 1894 to cover illegal poaching, the story galvanized popular interest in public lands; weeks later, Congress passed legislation to protect wildlife on national parks. Meanwhile, urban reformers with little connection to sportsmen were opening another front in the nascent environmental movement. In the 1890s, public health advocates from Jane Addams's Hull House linked sewage outflows with outbreaks of typhoid fever and pushed for sanitary garbage disposal. In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, exposing the dangerous and unsanitary conditions of meatpacking plants. Later that year, Congress and President Roosevelt created the Food and Drug Administration.
By the time Roosevelt's cousin occupied the White House, a second environmental awakening was taking place. Massive erosion, caused by drought and unsound farming practices, led to the Dust Bowl—when dark clouds swept across the prairie and drove families off their farmsteads. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt called representatives from local hook-and-bullet clubs to Washington for the first North American conference on wildlife. A year later, a newly formed national network of sportsmen's clubs lobbied for the Wildlife Restoration Act, which imposed a federal tax on sporting equipment to fund state wildlife agencies. (Two-thirds of the funding for these agencies today still comes from taxes and license fees on sportsmen.)
America's third environmental upsurge began in 1962 with the publication of wildlife biologist Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which traced the destructive path of the pesticide DDT through the food chain. Chemicals and industrial pollutants were jeopardizing human health and putting the nation's official symbol—the bald eagle—at risk of extinction. As that decade proceeded, Americans everywhere saw images of the burning Cuyahoga River on the evening news. Smog in Los Angeles became so bad that parents were warned to keep their children inside. Continuing in the tradition of broad-based environmentalism, these crises mobilized Americans across the political spectrum.
No single environmental lobby existed at the time, but hundreds of local groups played a role. Sportsmen's groups worried about watersheds, city-based citizen groups worked to control pollution, union chapters focused on mining safety, and women's organizations highlighted the connection between pollutants and fetal health. In Washington, leaders competed to be known as champions of environmental reform. Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Maine), a man with presidential aspirations and an instinct for public sentiment, embarked on a national tour in the mid 1960s to hear about toxins in rivers, air pollution in cities, and garbage problems everywhere. With the help of a Republican colleague, Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.)—and support from varied groups including the League of Women Voters and the sportsmen's Isaak Walton League—Muskie's subcommittee produced a series of major environmental laws in the early 1970s, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act.
Many of the groups we associate with the environmental movement today were in fact the product, not the cause, of this landmark legislation. The 1970s laws created a broad new federal regulatory apparatus for environmental concerns, which in turn required a new breed of scientific, legal, and technical experts to hold the bureaucracy's feet to the fire. A few existing conservation groups such as the Sierra Club (once a regional wilderness and backpacking organization) fortified their lobbying and legal resources to adapt to this new role. And a whole host of new organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, emerged to do the same.
As these new green groups hired professional staff in Washington, the focus of the movement shifted from grassroots advocacy to policy implementation. Whereas previous political debates involving the environment had ebbed and flowed around specific flashpoints, the new oversight responsibility necessitated an ongoing effort, particularly at the national level. This permanent role meant that the DC-based groups became the dominant face of environmentalism, overshadowing the myriad grassroots organizations that had focused on wilderness and outdoor issues for decades. These national groups did not prioritize—or perhaps have the resources for—maintaining extensive ties at the local level. While their efforts to hold the federal government accountable vastly improved American's quality of life, environmental groups no longer represented the leading edge of a popular movement; they had become a political fixture in Washington.
The breaking of the fellowship
In the late 1970s, a rift opened between environmentalists and hunters. Sportsmen's groups had supported the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, but they were not equipped, nor particularly inclined, to oversee implementation. The membership of such groups, drawn largely from rural areas, continued to focus on local concerns and hands-on conservation projects.
Different priorities alone didn't cause bad blood. But with the emergence of the animal-rights movement, a growing number of urban and suburban Americans, with little experience of farms or slaughterhouses, came to view hunting as backward or barbaric. Local chapters of some green groups, including the Sierra Club, campaigned to prevent or curtail state hunting seasons. This put greens and hunters directly at odds. "To hear someone attack your grandfather's tradition—that stings," says hunting columnist Wray. "And they [hunters] don't forget." The intensity of these conflicts, and a growing sense of cultural alienation, led many sportsmen to view environmentalists as antagonists.
After sportsmen left the fold, the environmental movement became more vulnerable to political attacks. The seeds of the modern anti-environmental backlash were sown in the late 1970s, when conservative leaders came to see environmentalism, together with Nader's consumer-safety movement, as threats to commercial enterprise. Industries that depend upon cheap access to public lands and federal mineral resources—oil, gas, mining, timber, and grazing interests—used their checkbooks to fight back. Colorado brewer Joseph Coors funded the new Heritage Foundation in Washington and the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver to promote free enterprise and weaken regulations. The billionaire Koch brothers, overseers of numerous oil refineries and chemical companies, founded the Cato Institute and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), which support privatizing federal lands.
During the Reagan years, these groups saw their interests advanced by like-minded presidential appointees, such as Interior Secretary James Watt, an alumnus of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. But after Reagan left office, they feared that President George H.W. Bush would take a more conciliatory approach toward green concerns. Former logging-industry consultant Ron Arnold and his business partner Alan Gottlieb realized that "industry can't stand alone," as Arnold told journalist David Helvarg. "It needs a grassroots movement to fight for its goals." Thus was born the "wise-use" movement, a loose network of new organizations with names like People for the West! formed to undercut support for environmental crusades. Vilifying greens proved easier than vilifying green policies, which the public largely supported. In lectures, books, and media appearances, wise-use advocates hammered home the image of environmentalists as out-of-touch, tree-hugging, people-hating, dope-smoking elitists. In one 1984 presentation to chemical manufacturers, Arnold advised, "I would strongly suggest that you do everything possible to associate the word anti-pesticide with the word marijuana."
In its antagonism toward urban liberals, the anti-environmental movement found a kindred spirit in the gun-rights lobby. In the wake of the Kennedy assassinations when the Democratic Party embraced urban-based gun-control advocates, conservatives within and outside the National Rifle Association transformed that organization from a nonpartisan hunting-safety group into a gun-rights powerhouse staunchly aligned with the GOP. The heart of its appeal is in defending hunting as a way of life against cosmopolitan liberals who would treat hunters as criminals. Both the gun-rights and anti-environmental movements tap into similar emotions; they also share some leaders. Wise-use guru Gottlieb, for example, is the author of Gun Grabbers and founder of numerous Second Amendment groups.
Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, whose grandfather belonged to the 1930s generation of hunter-conservationists (he fought for state parks in Michigan), remembers when he first recognized these attacks as part of a coordinated smear campaign against greens. In the mid 1980s, he noticed articles in Outdoor Life attacking the Sierra Club as systematically anti-hunting (some state affiliates have taken anti-hunting positions, but the national leadership has not). "At that point I realized we were dealing with a conscious political strategy to separate rural hunters and fishers from urban environmentalists," he says. "It wasn't about hunting and fishing. It was about politics."
The peacenik-and-hemp-pipe caricature of environmentalists may be unfair. ("Perhaps all aging hippies are environmentalists, but all environmentalists are not aging hippies," observes Pope.) But the archetype of greens as culturally distant touched a nerve, exploiting and amplifying a real reservoir of social alienation. In recent years, environmentalists' public image has declined. More important, so has their clout in Washington. Despite the efforts of green groups, for over a decade Congress has not reauthorized any of the key 1970s environmental laws. On their top priority of global warming, environmental groups have achieved little meaningful progress.
These setbacks have prompted something of a dark night of the soul among national environmental leaders. In October 2004, two movement iconoclasts, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, released an essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," which argued that the very category of "the environment" was a political and practical liability, and that the movement desperately needed to broaden its appeal. "What the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now is to take a collective step back to rethink everything," they wrote. "Environmentalists are in a culture war whether we like it or not."
The next environmental awakening
Some environmental leaders understand the need to build alliances. Since becoming Sierra Club executive director in 1992, Pope has sought common ground with groups that haven't always felt comfortable within the fold of the environmental movement. In the late 1990s, the Sierra Club initiated outreach efforts to people of faith, labor unions, Latinos, and hunters—including sending staffers to man a booth at a Texas rifle fair. Pope has also tried to broaden the views of his own members, publishing a series of articles on "Why I Hunt" in Sierra magazine.
At the same time, some within the hunting and fishing community have realized they have as much reason to be concerned as greens. Thirty-eight million Americans hunt and fish, but their access to private hunting land is eroding quickly, thanks to rapid development and suburbanization. (See "The End of Hunting?" January/February 2006 issue.) This has made public lands more valuable at precisely the moment when Republicans in Washington are pushing measures to sell them off. In addition to last October's surreptitious budget amendment, the president's 2007 budget calls for public lands sales from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Alarmed by these trends, some prominent leaders in the hook-and-bullet community are today urging sportsmen to become advocates on behalf of the environment. Earlier this year, Tony Dean, a popular outdoors TV host in South Dakota , embarked on a lecture tour to talk to sportsmen about the importance of the Endangered Species Act, now under threat from Republicans in Congress. Outdoors writer Ted Williams has been challenging hunters to look beyond the assumption that the NRA represents their best interests. And Jim Posewitz, a former Montana state wildlife department biologist, has founded a think tank, Orion, the Hunter's Institute, to promote efforts to remind sportsmen of their history as advocates for environmental causes—"before anyone was considered an alien from Planet Green."
Bridging cultures and a quarrelsome recent history is no small obstacle. But advocates on both sides are finding ways to break the ice. A vegetarian, who is now a spokesman for a national hunting organization, was deeply dubious of hunting until he found himself in a discussion with a sportsman about the modern meat-packing industry. The hunter said he had an elk in his freezer and that he wouldn't think of stopping at McDonald's until he had consumed what he had taken. "He thinks about where his food comes from," the now pro-hunting vegetarian said. "After that I respected him." A Maryland state senator, John Astle, who grew up hunting in West Virginia and is now president of the National Assembly of Sportsmen's Caucuses, knows he is an anomaly. Last fall, in accepting the "Sportsmen's Legislator of the Year" award from the conservative Safari Club, he stood before an audience in a crowded Texas ballroom. "Before I say anything, in the name of full disclosure, I need to confess... I'm a Democrat." After a round of nervous twitters, he added, "But I love guns, big dogs, and pick-ups," to real applause.
It's not just the hook-and-bullet crowd that's challenging the status quo. Among ranchers, too, there is the first evidence of a similar thaw. Though the National Cattlemen's Beef Association remain staunchly conservative, some individual ranchers have recently become more willing to work with greens, largely because of shared opposition to policies that favor extractive-industry interests over citizens. Tweeti Blancett, a rancher in New Mexico, was a regional organizer for Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. That was before her ranch, a mixture of private and public grazing land used by her family for six generations, was overrun with 500 gas wells without her consent—thanks to a Bush administration position allowing the sale of sub-surface mineral rights to extraction companies without involving the "surface" landowner. She's now working with the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society to advocate for the property rights of other ranchers.
But it's global warming that will almost certainly "be the glue that brings everyone together," as National Wildlife Federation president and CEO Larry Schweiger puts it. Last year, Lake Erie did not freeze, leaving ice fishermen scratching their heads. The Waterfowlers' Guide to Global Warming (PDF), published last summer by NWF, explains how climate change could produce droughts across the Midwest and evaporate the region's "prairie pothole" wetlands—vital duck-breeding grounds. Global warming recently made the cover of Trout, the magazine of Trout Unlimited; the article cited a Pew Center study that found that a 4.8 degree temperature increase could halve trout habitat in the Rocky Mountain Region (trout thrive in cold water). Because the potential effects of the problem are so sweeping, the threat—and lately, the reality—of climate change has become a top concern across a broad spectrum of organizations. Evangelical Christians are calling for carbon reductions. An agricultural coalition, 25 by '25, is pushing for renewable energy. Insurance companies are calculating potentially catastrophic losses. Sportsmen are gathering data on shifting habitat and changing stream flows. "I think we've reached a tipping point in public awareness," says Steven Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute, adding, "Sportsmen want a seat at the table." In a poll of hunters and anglers commissioned last year by the National Wildlife Federation, 75 percent agreed with the statement "the U.S. should reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming and threaten fish and wildlife habitat."
These multiple uprisings in response to global warming echo each of the nation's previous environmental awakenings. (When Sen. Muskie embarked on his national tour in the mid 1960s, his chief of staff Leon Billings remembers, "People just came out of the woodwork.") Each time environmental concerns have risen to the top of the national agenda, uniting a broad array of the public behind the need for government action, it has forged new alliances and remade American politics with a progressive tilt. Already, there's evidence of such a shift affecting elections. In 2004, pro-gun western Democrats like Brian Schweitzer in Montana and Ken Salazar in Colorado won their statewide races in part by tapping into public discontent with the on-the-ground effects of the Bush administration's anti-environmental policies. In the last election, in every region except the South, Bush lost ground among gun-owners since 2000; he lost ground everywhere among rural voters.
Conservatives may try to counter the emergence of this new environmental majority with greener rhetoric or by scaling back on favors to extractive industries. But it is hard to fathom how today's conservative elected officials could bring themselves to champion aggressive regulations on carbon emissions and other ambitious measures to control global warming, which would require a direct hit on the very industries that hold up the roof of the current Republican Party. The job of taking on those industries will have to fall to progressive leaders of either political party. And with the support of environmentalists, sportsmen, and others, they may finally have the political clout to pull it off.
Christina Larson is the managing editor of The Washington Monthly.