My Turn: The Republican Party once led the charge to protect the environment. Why did that change?

Last modified: 10/30/2014 1:25:25 AM
I keep wondering: When was it that the Republican Party became the anti-environment party?

It seems like today, it’s Republicans in Congress who lead all the assaults on the nation’s conservation and environmental laws. The list of attacks is long, and includes the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and other important laws.

This wasn’t always the case. My favorite president, Teddy Roosevelt, was a progressive Republican who was probably the nation’s first conservationist political leader. His legacy includes numerous national parks, monuments and national forests, and the creation of a national conservation ethic.

More than 75 years later in New Hampshire, governors both Republican and Democrat helped create our Current Use law, and two nearly universally popular land conservation programs (LCIP and LCHIP), our wetlands protection laws and water quality protection laws. Today, we have cleaner water and cleaner air, thanks to politicians on both sides of the aisle in both Washington and Concord.

The iconic environmental laws of the nation were largely created under the presidency of Richard Nixon. He lauded the enactment of the Environmental Policy Act (creating the EPA), the Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. But things began to unravel in the Reagan administration when attacks on environmental laws and attempts to sell off public lands by later-discredited cabinet officials suddenly changed the character of the Republican Party.

But even so, New Hampshire sent some notable Republican conservation leaders to Washington.

Judd Gregg, former congressman, governor and senator, was a leader in recognizing that New Hampshire, more than most states, depends especially on its clean air and water, and scenic, productive forested and farmed lands for both our quality of life and economic health. He helped secure funding to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of land as wildlife habitat, active farms, working woodland and wilderness, and never considered it a partisan issue.

Warren Rudman, known more for his fiscal conservatism than his conservation credentials, went to the mat for New Hampshire’s landscape more than once, and today, if you enjoy the view over Pinkham Notch from the Mount Washington Auto Road, you owe it to Rudman, who secured the funding to protect that landscape. When talking about Rudman, someone once reminded me that the words conservation and conservative have the same root. Somehow partisans today have managed to tease them pretty far apart.

So what has happened?

Today in Washington, most (but not all) Republicans want to eviscerate the EPA, kill laws and regulations that are designed to protect the headwater streams that ensure clean water in our rivers and lakes, and undermine the Clean Air Act. They have advocated despoiling one of our last great wildernesses in Alaska for oil, and have supported an enormous open pit Pebble Mine that would likely destroy the world’s largest sustainable salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

If the Republicans take over the Senate, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe will take over as chairman of the Environment Committee. Among other things, he has vowed to gut the EPA, calls climate change a hoax, and has a lifetime voting record of 5 percent by the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters.

Here in our own state, gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein says we shouldn’t support clean and renewable solar and wind power because he thinks we shouldn’t “subsidize” them even while his friends in Washington refuse to eliminate billions of dollars in long-standing subsidies for the oil, gas and nuclear power industries.

And then there’s climate change, likely the ultimate environmental challenge. To the extent that we ignore the warnings of nearly the entire scientific community of experts and put off action, we can only cause havoc for our children and grandchildren. That so many Republican politicians, apparently bowing to the dogma machine in the right wing elements of their party, say either climate change isn’t real, or if it is, we aren’t causing it, is ludicrous.

Who would you trust to determine the cause of climate change? Thousands of scientists who have spent their entire careers studying the issue, or politicians who have been told to adhere to the talking points written in an oil industry think tank?

But please don’t assume my comments mean I’m some die-hard Democrat who is pretending to be objective to help them win the election. No, I’m an independent who has also watched a lot of Democrats play short-term political games with the environment at the expense of future generations. The problem I have is that there are very few Republican politicians left who listen to environmental concerns, respect the science and consider it their responsibility to protect the environment.

Hey, it’s where we and our children get the water we drink, air we breathe and food we eat! A good friend of mine, who was a lifelong Republican and is a solid conservationist, once said to me when we discussed my observations about the party: “I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the party left me.”

At this point in my life, after a career of work in environmental education, protection and conservation, I can say that I think a lot more about what we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. Will it be a better place, or one with even more and bigger problems than we wrestle with today? Politicians won’t ultimately be the leaders in what successes we achieve, but they can do a lot to make it easier or harder to achieve success.

So as I go to the polls in November, I will remember my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quotation: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”

I’m pretty sure if TR was alive today, he wouldn’t recognize the party he once led.

(Paul Doscher, who lives in Weare, grew up in a Republican family.)

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