In the seven years since I cofounded Republicans for Environmental Protection, officially known as REP America, I have answered two questions more often than any others: “Isn’t Republicans for Environmental Protection an oxymoron?” And, “If you care so much about conservation and environmental protection, why don’t you become a Democrat?”

The first one is easy to answer. No, Republicans for Environmental Protection is not an oxymoron. I can rattle off a list of Republican presidents, senators, representatives, governors, and ordinary citizens who fought hard for the laws that cleaned up our air and water, protected our natural resources, and saved vast tracts of our public lands. And they have many kindred spirits in the GOP today.

We conservation-minded Republicans are the true conservatives in our party. True conservatives protect the health and well-being of current and future generations. If conservatives won’t conserve, who will? REP America believes so strongly that conservation is conservative that we’ve trademarked that slogan. So, dealing with the “oxymoron question” is a snap.

The answer to the second question is more complex. I have always been a Republican, I was an elected Republican for 10 years, and I don’t agree with the Democrats on everything either. Rather than switching parties, I’d rather make a stand for what I believe within my own party. I am simply not willing to see irresponsible, anti-conservation radicals take over my party without a fight.

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Nixon created the U.S. EPA and signed the Clean Air Act.

Photo: NARA.

But my fight with my party doesn’t address a fundamental problem that the conservation community needs to confront head on. So, here’s the real core of my answer to that second question: Only when the leaders of both major parties take up a cause do the American people see meaningful, permanent progress. So we must restore the environment as an important issue for both Republicans and Democrats.

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As long as one party takes the environmental vote for granted and the other party ignores it, we’ll continue to see our hard-won gains eroded by shortsighted politicians of both parties. We must make both Republicans and Democrats compete for our support and hold both parties accountable for their performance.

The obvious corollary to that argument is that as long as the environmental community routinely backs one party and demonizes, ignores, or gives up on the other, we’ll never make the environment a two-party issue. Accountability means more than merely being critical when our leaders fall short of the mark. Accountability means we must also praise them — Republicans and Democrats alike — when they do the right thing.

It’s too easy to surrender to the grim reality of one “green” party and one “brown” party. Whatever good may be done by the “greens” when they’re in power can be undone by the “browns” when the cycle turns and they take power back. If you doubt that, just look at what is happening right now in Washington, D.C., to the detriment of our national forests and parks, clean air standards, wetlands protections, and conservation budgets.

Teddy Roosevelt, the original pro-conservation conservative, with John Muir.

Photo: National Park Service.

One thing is certain: That happy state of bipartisan competition for our votes won’t become reality if we conservationists give up on the GOP. We absolutely must support pro-conservation Republicans now in office and help others like them get elected.

And there’s a practical reason why conservationists of all political stripes should be glad to have a Republican membership organization like REP America around. With our growing numbers and “conservation is conservative” message, we offer the perfect foil to the rants of Rush Limbaugh and others of his ilk. We cut off at the knees their absurd claims that only “watermelons” and “wackos” care about protecting America’s natural heritage. Through our website, our Green Elephant newsletter, our speeches, op-eds, and published letters to the editor, we provide a counterweight to the anti-conservation extremists.

We at REP America are working toward the day when both parties compete to be environmental champions. Given where the GOP is at this moment, that will take some time. But if I didn’t think it could happen, I never would have begun this endeavor. I do believe that our quest to “green up” the GOP will ultimately succeed. If enough Republicans with an environmental conscience band together and speak with one voice, we can save our party from its own shortsightedness. More importantly, future Americans will thank our generation for being a responsible voice for theirs.