Newt, the Pro-Environment Zookeeper

'Property rights' citizens groups find 'old Republicans' tougher than Democrats

MY aunt, who's never had much interest in politics, is a land-rights activist. The federal government drove her to it. Bureaucrats hounded her for months, insisting that her small plot is a wetland "protected" under federal law, and demanding that she repent of the high crime of planting a garden on her own property. Now the swelling antigovernment citizens army has another soldier.

In the years since the greens gained prominence in government, the cause of property rights has become a people's issue. The activists are not corporate lobbyists but average people who believe that they are being stripped of the right to use their property as they see fit. For the people harmed by environmental laws, the issue can be reduced to a model: us (the property-owning citizens) against them (the elites in environmental organizations and government).

In every region, hard knocks from the feds are pushing people like my aunt into politics and even active resistance. The West, in particular, has been the site of a virtual state of war between citizens and federal regulators. When California Republican Congressman Richard Pombo held hearings earlier this year to discuss the effects of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on ordinary Westerners, he found a citizenry furious at the heavy-handedness of the environmental police and determined to resist further encroachments on their rights.

Freshman Republicans tend to sympathize with these victims of government regulations. Many of the freshmen entered public life for the purpose of curbing and repealing federal laws and restoring some sense of privacy from government to the home and land.

Beating back the greens wasn't in the Contract With America, but it was central to many House elections.

However, the Republican leadership, in both houses of Congress, appears to have a different view. They have been in Washington during the period when passage and enforcement of new eco-regulations grew sharply. They voted for legislation that today is the very source of conflict, but they have not seen it in action outside the Beltway.

Chuck Cushman, national coordinator of a group called the Grassroots ESA Coalition, has argued that "grassroots and property rights activists actually had more influence in the Senate when the Democrats were in control."

He's got a point. The hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the ESA actively excluded testimony from landowners who have seen their property values reduced or zeroed out by regulations. "Not a single victim of the ESA was allowed to testify," said Cushman. "Out of 14 witnesses today on three different panels, not one of them has been personally harmed by the ESA's onerous land-use regulations."

The most fervent environmentalist among the Republican leadership turns out to be Newt Gingrich himself. At the final session of Mr. Pombo's Congressional hearing earlier this year, Mr. Gingrich appeared uninterested and unsympathetic to the plight of those testifying. He even turned the tables on them by intoning: "These are enormous interests that we have as human beings in maintaining biological diversity."

In familiar routine, Gingrich thus thwarted a worthy effort by freshman Republicans, many of whom still believed that a "Republican Revolution" should include an honest effort to restore land rights and shrink Leviathan.

Speaker Gingrich repeated the performance this summer when he opposed Republican efforts to eliminate the functions of the National Biological Survey (NBS). To its proponents, the program is a nonpartisan exercise in species identification and classification. But government never gathers statistics without a reason. The program's sheer scope is unprecedented, and its upshot could easily be a tripling of the number of species on the endangered list. It's anyone's guess as to how many more millions of acres the federal government will thereby be able to control.

The Speaker is not shedding any tears for the victims of the NBS. Gingrich, whose boyhood dream was to be a zookeeper, has recently been described by Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson as "intensely interested in animals." According to U.S. News & World Report, Gingrich has held informal meetings with prominent pro-green scientists for months now, including entomologist Thomas Eisner and Marxist paleontologist Steven Jay Gould.

The Speaker's green side, incidentally, is nothing new. Last year, he co-sponsored a measure by Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts that would double spending on endangered species and give additional powers to environmental regulators. In the past, Gingrich's support for environmental measures has ranged from the 1979 Alaska Lands Bill, which closed off 68 million acres of wilderness, to the Clean Air Act of 1990, whose cost has been estimated at over $40 billion annually.

It always surprises liberals to learn that the Washington establishment is not pro-land rights. The regulators and the lobbyists are on the other side, and it takes guts for any member of Congress to stand up to them.

Even when your own constituents are calling you, it's easier to go along with Washington's status quo, however tyrannical it may be. Gingrich and the Republican leadership appear to have succumbed to the temptation.

But they should remember - and the freshmen should continue to remind them - what they are there to do. They are not supposed to side with the Beltway establishment; they are supposed to oppose it and dismantle it. Environmental regulations have dispossessed ordinary people of their land. That violates a sacred trust. People like my aunt have far more personal loyalty to their land than to any particular political party, much less the present leadership of Congress.

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