THEY are struggling to protect endangered species, prevent new oil drilling in Alaska, and strengthen clean-water legislation. They are resisting budget cuts of the Environmental Protection Agency. They are sounding off about congressional leaders who want to do otherwise - and they are ... Republicans.
The spirit of Teddy Roosevelt - the quintessential Republican protector of nature - seems to be stirring among the ranks of the GOP. In growing numbers they are defying their legislative leaders (especially in the House) and joining with Democrats to advocate pro-environment bills.
Across the country they are organizing under the banner of a new group called "Republicans for Environmental Protection" (REP), which published its "manifesto" last month and now has members in 16 states.
"The thing is really starting to mushroom," says Martha Marks, a Republican county commissioner in Lake County, Ill., and REP co-founder. "There are a lot of Republicans who are very concerned about the environment and are not at all happy with what they see happening in Washington these days."
Those who have held senior posts in Republican administrations are speaking out as well.
William Ruckelshaus, appointed by Richard Nixon as the first EPA administrator, this week blasted "careless budget slashing" and "the most violent anti-environmental rhetoric in recent memory coming from the Congress."
Speaking to the Environmental Law Institute in Washington on Wednesday night, Mr. Ruckelshaus, who calls himself "a conservative old Republican," also said, "It almost seems as if many members of Congress believe that environmental protection is nothing but an aspect of liberalism, and since liberalism is discredited, we can happily return to converting every environmental value we have left into ready cash."
William Reilly, who headed the EPA in the Bush administration, warned recently that "current congressional efforts have gone well beyond what the public will support."
East vs. West
There is a clear geographical split among GOP lawmakers over the environment.
According to a tally by the Wilderness Society of the 117 Republican House members who voted pro-environment on at least one of three major bills in recent months, just seven are from Western states. Only one Western Republican - freshman Rick White from Washington State - voted with environmentalists on all three measures (a deep EPA budget cut, a special commission to consider closing some national parks, and anti-environmental measures tacked onto Interior Department appropriations).
The regional split among GOP elected officials is seen at the state level as well.
Two Republican governors, George Pataki of New York and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, want help in protecting a privately owned forest in the Northeast from development. But Western lawmakers oppose a plan to buy the forest with federal funds.
Sounding the GOP's pro-environment message in the House are a handful of what Ms. Marks calls "people we consider our heroes." Among them: Sherwood Boehlert of New York, John Porter of Illinois, Constance Morella and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, and Christopher Shays of Connecticut, each of whom was getting high ratings from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) long before Republicans took control of Congress last year.
They are among 51 Republicans who broke ranks in July to join Democrats in voting against a measure that would have prevented the EPA from enforcing many environmental regulations.
Joining Republicans with historically "green" voting records, others now are more willing to resist the GOP majority on environmental issues. Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan has had a relatively low LCV rating, but now is speaking out against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"More and more, Republicans are peeling away from what is arguably an extremist position on environmental protection," says Betsy Loyless, political director of the League of Conservation Voters, a political action committee.
Part of this departure has to do with a fundamental debate over political conservatism.
"What is conservatism except conserving things?" Marks asks. "Selling things off to the highest bidder or chopping down all of the old-growth forests or letting species go extinct or polluting our finest natural lands to pull out a little bit of oil or minerals is not conserving. It's not conservative at all."
She notes that the man many have called "Mr. Conservative" - former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona - considers himself an environmentalist.
Will of the people
Many recent polls indicate that public support for environmental protection remains strong, even if the issue is not at the top of most peoples' list of concerns.
As the political clock ticks toward another election, it may be that Republicans are feeling the heat as much as seeing the light on the environment.
The LCV plans to spend $1.6 million next year on House races, targeting incumbents seen as vulnerable on the environment. "We'll either defeat members of Congress or they'll know they've been in a fight," Ms. Loyless says.
Intraparty squabbling over the environment apparently has become a concern for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He has appointed a special task force on the issue co-chaired by Republican Whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas (the owner of a pest-control business who has called the EPA "the Gestapo of government") and New Yorker Sherwood Boehlert from the party's moderate wing.
Whether this oil-and-water mix can help the GOP image remains to be seen.
"Republicans will be in power for another generation if they do two things," explains Representative Boehlert. "Soften some of the hard edges and don't turn their back on the environment."