By Chris Wood
The other morning, my friend, Brent Fewell, an attorney who worked at the EPA under President George W. Bush, wrote: “Had dinner and a very encouraging conversation last evening with seven prominent GOP Senators who want to make the environment and conservation a greater priority for the GOP, a return to Teddy Roosevelt… Would love to hear ideas from folks on how you think the GOP can and should move forward with a positive environmental agenda, applying conservative principles.”
Brent is a relentless optimist but his challenge is that when conservation is looked at through a Democratic-Republican prism, the focus is too often on red-light issues that are often more political than substantive.
To answer Brent’s question about building a “positive environmental agenda,” in this case, for both Republicans and Democrats, the focus should start with green light issues such as cleaning up abandoned mines, and providing liability protections for the “Good Samaritans” who want to do so. There is no constituency for acid mine drainage. Lobbyists for yellow rivers are unemployed. Good Samaritan legislation for coal mining passed the House of Representatives by something called unanimous consent—in other words, not one of the 435 members of the House object to it! It is time to pass it in the Senate, and then turn to similar legislation for cleaning up abandoned gold, silver, and other hard rock mines, too.
The agenda could then turn to renewable energy development. Consider, for example, renewable energy on public lands. Today, in most cases, you need a special use permit—the same kind you get to cut a Christmas tree—to develop solar or wind on public lands. A better idea is to treat renewables the same as leasable minerals such as oil, gas, or coal, and thereby create an associated revenue stream that can be plowed back to counties and states, and for restoration and remediation.
Renewable energy on public lands is not a big deal today, but it may be in 20 years. Bipartisan action to treat renewables like leasable minerals in the future can be good for the states, local communities, and fish, wildlife, and water, too.
The agenda should emphasize the social benefits of conservation. Politicians sometimes balk at the price of restoration. The President’s budget, for example, has proposed eliminating funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. We do better as conservation advocates when we focus on both the societal benefits of protecting, reconnecting, and restoring watersheds as well as the fish and wildlife gains.
The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, for example, touts the 42 miles of reconnected brook trout habitat made possible by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Equally, if not more important, are the benefits to dozens of adjacent communities whose infrastructure, roads, and communities are protected by rivers that are better able to disperse flood energy.
Of course, real differences exist between the political parties. Those differences, however, need not define us. A few green light successes will allow us to move to the amber issues. And, after a while, and a lot of meals, beers, and time-spent, perhaps those red light issues may not seem so hard.
Chris Wood is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Trout Unlimited. He is based out of Trout Unlimited’s national offices in Arlington, Virginia.