The Republican Party, which has been forced to make tough fiscal decisions in the face of Democratic spending proclivities, is flirting with becoming the anti-conservation party.
Even though poll after poll for decades has found that some three-quarters of Americans support water and land conservation, the GOP is slashing spending on environmental programs at the state and federal levels.
House Republicans pushed to reduce federal conservation programs like LAWCON, the land and water conservation programs funded by oil and gas leases, to virtually zero and ended up compromising at cuts of one-third. Those are far deeper cuts than in other programs.
In Wisconsin, the legislature and Gov. Walker are also greatly reducing spending on preservation programs. They are continuing the authorization for the state’s heretofore bipartisan Stewardship fund at $84 million per year, but are sharply limiting draws on that fund. These are the matching funds that land trusts and the DNR use to preserve properties, many in key watersheds. Private donors put their money where their mouths are and pay for half of these purchases.
There is widespread acceptance that public deficits need to be brought back into balance. And there is general dismay surrounding the inability of Congress and legislators to manage health and entitlement costs. They are crowding out investments in priorities like education and the environment.
That understood, the Republicans have been harder on environmental programs than any other form of spending.
Somehow, GOP legislators have bought the erroneous theory that the environment and economy are an either-or proposition. Nothing could be more wrong. Advances for the economy and the environment are complementary, not competing.
Does MillerCoors need abundant, clean water supplies? Does agri-business need prime soils conserved? Do Georgia Pacific and Kimberly Clark need sustainable practices in our great forests? Does our tourism industry need the attractiveness of national and state forests and pristine bodies of water?
Republican Gov. Warren Knowles and Democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson teamed up to create the predecessor to the Stewardship Fund and every governor and Legislature has supported the program since. What happened to that common denominator between the parties?
Again, it is prudent to cut back spending in today’s fiscal straits. But radical cuts send the message that the Republican Party has lost sight of the heritage of President Teddy Roosevelt.
That grand Republican president convened the first national conservation conference in 1908 and called for “a national philosophy of conservation based on the efficient use of finite resources and scientific management.” He was a sharp critic of abuses of the natural world, like the denuding of the nation’s forests in the late 1800s.
He stressed the need for “foresight” in the interaction with the nation’s natural resources.
Absent an abiding philosophy of conservation, there will be mistakes as the GOP pursues job creation. For example, business interests reportedly are pushing for a slow-down in phosphorus emissions into our waterways. But that’s not really a major business issue. It’s mainly an issue for municipal treatment plants. Businesses are not in favor of lakes clogged with vegetation, accelerated by excess phosphorous. How is this a jobs issue?
The GOP needs to be more cognizant that the 55 land trusts in Wisconsin have boards that are filled with business people, mostly Republicans. Many of the trusts’ best donors are business people, who are also the GOP’s best donors.
Politics in America is way too adversarial. The extreme environmentalists love to make business the enemy. It serves their political purposes and helps them raise dues and stay in business. They make their livings making enemies.
But most solutions in this world come from collaborative processes, not confrontation. The Green Tier program in Wisconsin is an example of working together. Businesses accept aggressive environmental goals in exchange for reasonable regulation.
Green Tier should be expanded across all the key industries in the state. Several industrial sectors, like dairy and scrap metal, have proven that Green Tier compacts can work.
It’s been hard to get Green Tier expanded, because entrenched bureaucrats at the state and federal level prefer the adversarial, command and control mode that has been the order of the day for decades.
A looming test case in Wisconsin will be the proposed iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties. Roosevelt would never have called for a ban on mining in the state, but he would have pushed for strict standards on how the mining would be done. The extreme environmental groups will take the philosophically indefensible position that mining should not be allowed in this state, meaning it’s acceptable that it should be done elsewhere.
It’s time for new thinking. Both parties should be promoting an integrated green and gold philosophy. The colors work in Wisconsin, and it’s good policy and good politics.
In absence of an underlying pro-environment Roosevelt-like philosophy, the GOP is in danger of losing green Republicans.