Republicans are handing Democrats a green Y2K. So far, GOP presidential contenders have all but conceded the environmental issue to Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Rather than fight for the conservation mantle that was once the GOP’s, they seem content to not ask and not tell when it comes to the nation’s land, air, water, and wildlife. At best, Republican environmental policy is knee-jerk Clinton bashing. That’s no policy at all, and it could backfire.

Rocky mountain high.

Photo: Jesse Speer of

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Part of the problem lies in the Rocky Mountain West where Republicans long ago traded the environmental issue for the expediency of winning votes. In Faustian style, they spent the past two decades forging a GOP electoral juggernaut out of western fear of public land policies. And it continues to this day as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), and Pete Domenici (N.M.) join a chorus of Republican governors denouncing the administration’s plans to designate four new national monuments and set aside 40 million acres of roadless national forests, all off-limits to logging and mining.

Certainly, westerners and Republicans have reason to gripe. Pres. Clinton is running roughshod over them because he knows monuments and roadless forests sell back East. Public lands are political lands, and Democrats can play the same electoral game Republicans have played so artfully since Reagan’s ascendancy.

Still, there is substance to what Clinton is doing. Republicans have built a Berlin Wall around the public land in the West to protect grazing, mining, and logging at the expense of land uses that a free market would otherwise dictate — such as more wildlife, more recreation, and more wilderness. Western Republicans are not attuned to markets and consumer demand; Clinton is, and he is willing to give voters what they cannot get from the GOP.

Republican silence on the environment is also rooted in a misreading of the polls. Conservation is way down on the list of voter concerns. George W. Bush, McCain, and the other GOP aspirants see this as a reprieve from having to deal with their party’s Achilles’ heal. But no other issue, save jobs, touches the personal lives of Americans more than the quality of their living environments. Voters may not be voicing environment as a national concern, but the subject engages tens of millions of them daily. If November’s vote is close, the margin of victory could well be green in hue.

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Some Republicans are tickled pink by wilderness.

Photo: Art Wolfe.

Conservation is not inimical to conservatism. Mr. Conservative himself, Barry M. Goldwater, was an adamant conservationist. He helped pioneer the use of private trusts to save desert lands in Arizona. He fought for legislation to protect national seashores. He worked with Democratic Rep. Morris Udall to make the Grand Canyon an ecological whole. And during all of this, his lodestar remained the conviction that the future of conservation lay not with government, but with the responsible individual.

Republicans should carry the Goldwater message to every state, town, and neighborhood in the nation. Private stewardship belongs on the GOP agenda. It is the commonsense principle around which Republicans can galvanize a bold initiative on the environment, one with good ideas and even better deeds to challenge today’s environmental welfare state. The good news is that there is abundant fodder for just such a message.

Command and control is no longer the only, or best, way to deal with air and water pollution. Thanks to innovative programs at the state level, top-down regulation is giving way to flexibility. At the same time, carrots are starting to replace sticks. State regulators are now looking at incentives, such as fee rebates to complying firms, as a way to reward private stewardship.

Similar activities are happening with land and wildlife. Colorado is encouraging private stewardship through its innovative Ranching for Wildlife program, which gives landowners more control over hunting in exchange for their commitment to improve wildlife habitat. Both the Interior Department and the Environmental Defense Fund are cooperating to make the Endangered Species Act more landowner friendly by relying more on incentives to win people to the cause of species protection. And in New Mexico, state grazing lands can now be leased by environmentalists, giving them a chance to pursue their land-use visions through markets rather than politics. Applied to public land grazing, mining, and logging leases, free markets could topple the Republican Berlin Wall in a moment — and do so in the spirit of traditional GOP values.

Private environmental stewardship is a winner for the compassionate conservatism espoused by Bush and a natural philosophy for Goldwater’s hand-picked successor, McCain. Instead of giving Democrats a green gift, Republicans should be giving them something to think about.

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