Conservation and Conservatism: Not at Odds

Environmental laws have boosted regional economies in the US

AT the conclusion of the first session of the 104th Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich chastened fellow Republicans for "mishandling the environment." Reluctant to cede the environment as a campaign issue to Democrats, Republican pollsters and the House leadership scrambled to recommend that members plant trees, visit zoos, and hold environment appreciation days. When all is said and done, however, proposals before Congress weaken the Clean Water Act, eliminate enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, exempt logging and grazing on public lands from oversight, and diminish other environmental laws.

As the fall political season moves into full-swing, incumbents and would-be politicians should remember three facts.

Environmental protection spurs economic prosperity. Many predicted that protection of salmon and the northern spotted owl would render a "new Appalachia" of Oregon and Washington. Today they lead the region's economic growth. A recent report by 34 independent economists indicates that the Northwest's economy outperforms the rest of the country. They found that from 1988 to 1994 personal income in the Northwest grew 2.2 times the national average. Real per capita income improved more than two times faster than the national average, as did employment.

The report notes that Boeing, PACCAR (a trucking company), and Microsoft, which account for more than 50 percent of Washington's exports, "would just as easily be located in Iowa or Alabama, as in Washington." But the quality of the environment draws employers to the region, proving, the report concludes, "a healthy environment is a major stimulus for a healthy economy."

Environmental protection laws work. Considerable evidence demonstrates the efficacy of conservation statutes.

Once urban rivers such as the Potomac in Washington, D.C., were little more than sewers. Today, some of the finest bass fishing in the East is found in the shadow of the Washington Monument. In the 1970s pollution problems abounded in parts of the Great Lakes. Today, anglers ply Lake Erie for trophy walleye while the city of Cleveland reaps the benefits of waterfront development. Countless other communities have benefited from improved water quality since the Clean Water Act passed in 1972.

Critics claim the Endangered Species Act puts a few rare species ahead of thousands of potential jobs. The facts tell a different story. Of nearly 97,000 projects on federal land reviewed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service between 1987 and 1992, only 54 were terminated because of potential harm to endangered species. Meanwhile, the nation's symbol, the bald eagle, has recovered from the brink of extinction. Dozens of native plant and animal species are stabilized or recovering because of the act's protection. Equally important, landowners are protecting species before federal intervention is required. For example, the Georgia-Pacific Company voluntarily manages thousands of acres of private timber land to protect rare red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Advocates of transferring federally managed public lands to the Western states conjure up a mythical economic "War on the West." They forget the $5 billion in federal largess supplied to the same states from 1989 to 1993; the $900 million annually spent on fire management by federal agencies; and the more than $4 billion spent locally by those who hunt and fish on public lands.

Conservationists are not alone in their defense of environmental statutes. A presidential panel of industry and conservation leaders stated in February that "there is no doubt some regulations have ... result[ed] in substantial improvements in the protection of public health and the environment." The President's Council on Sustainable Development, whose membership includes Georgia-Pacific, Chevron, and Dow Chemical, notes "environmental regulations have improved and must continue to improve the lives of all Americans."

Resource conservation need not be a partisan issue. Contemporary conservatives are prone to ignore their philosophic and political forebears. The father of modern conservatism, statesman Edmund Burke, spoke forcefully about conservation: "People ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust." This implied, he said, an obligation to conserve "an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate belonging to the people." Republican President Theodore Roosevelt defined conservation as "the application of common sense to common problems for the common good." Both conservationist and conservative beliefs led Roosevelt to establish a system of forest reserves to protect the West's water and its timber supplies and to create the National Park System to preserve nationally significant lands. In fact, most of the conservation statutes presently under siege on Capitol Hill were signed into law by Republican presidents.

Burke and Roosevelt understood the shared premise that links resource conservation to sustainable economic development: Production should never impair a nation's productive capacity. Inexplicably, conservative ideals no longer apply to conservation. This is particularly baffling considering the 72 percent of people who in 1995 told a Roper-Starch poll that environmental laws and regulations either strike the right balance or have not gone far enough.

For most Americans, environmental protection is less a political issue than it is a public trust. The willingness to conserve and restore America's lands and waters expresses the nation's innate conservatism and optimism for the future. Slowing the protection of human health, improvement of air quality, abatement of water pollution, and enhancement of fish and wildlife habitats makes neither ecologic, economic, nor political sense.

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