New Jersey politicians find a bipartisan cause: protecting turtles

A New Jersey bill aims to protect the diamondback terrapin, a native turtle which has been threatened by over-harvesting and auto traffic.

Wayne Parry/AP/File
Baby diamondback terrapin turtles swim in a container at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science in Manahawkin, N.J., in 2014. Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation to protect a native New Jersey turtle known for living in salty marshes along the coast and sometimes falling victim to auto traffic during the shore's busy summer months.

It’s official: Terrapin is off the menu in New Jersey.

On Friday, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation to ban the hunting of diamondback terrapin. Christie's apparent support of the bill, which was proposed by a Democratic-controlled legislature, is a rare moment of concession between two polarized political parties. Is conservation an issue that can bridge the party gap?

The diamondback terrapin is a species of swamp-dwelling turtle, so named for the diamond-shaped patterns on its shell. It can be found along the entire Eastern Seaboard, and lived in great numbers until the 18th century. Considered a delicacy, the species was nearly hunted to extinction until the 1900s, when federal officials acknowledged its decline.

There is still a commercial market for terrapin meat – a major concern for conservationists who already fear for the terrapin’s waning population. Urbanization has destroyed many of the salt marshes where terrapin historically lived, and passing cars are a constant threat for individual turtles. Some states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, have listed the terrapin as endangered or threatened, but the species has no federal conservation status.

“Today we join other Atlantic coastal states that have taken an important step to prevent this unique species from any further decline toward extinction,” Christie said in a statement. “The diamondback terrapin is a natural treasure and integral part of our coastal landscape in New Jersey, and this action will help to ensure the species remains a feature of our natural landscape for generations to come.”

The bill’s passing is a victory for terrapins and conservationists alike. But it may also represent a shift in thought, a place where Republicans and Democrats can actually agree.

The Republican party has transformed in recent years. When voting on environmental issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, the conservative mainstream tends to value job creation and free trade over environmental protection. But the GOP’s roots are greener than many suppose.

In 2012, a survey of environmental groups ranked the most environmentally progressive US presidents. The two greenest presidents, according to that survey, were Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon – both Republicans.

National conservation was a priority for Roosevelt, who went on to establish scores of national parks and forests. Nixon, while better known for his Watergate scandal, also advanced several environmental initiatives, most notably establishing the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. In the following years, he signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Clean Air Act.

“Much of the environmental legislation that was passed in the 1970s had very bipartisan support,” Robert Engelman, president of the Worldwatch Institute, told the New York Times.

This trend would persist throughout the 20th century, continuing through the ideas of Ronald Reagan.

"What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live," said the 40th president at the dedication of the new National Geographic headquarters in 1984. 

"And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live – our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it."

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