Defenders View: Measuring the Election's Impact on Wildlife

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© Krista Schlyer

© Krista Schlyer

There’s a saying in politics that dates at least to the French Revolution, to the effect that the public gets the government it deserves. American wit H. L. Mencken, after one election he detested, is said to have added, “and now it’s going to get it good and hard.”

Well, if good conservationists don’t respond effectively to the new Congress’ serious threat to conservation, America’s imperiled wildlife is now “going to get it good and hard.” Regardless how one feels about other impacts of the November election, the news for America’s imperiled wildlife is extremely bad. Bad because it has put in charge of the House of Representatives leaders whose bumper sticker might as well read “Honk if you hate conservation.”

I am dumbfounded by the fairly recent shift in Republican party support away from conservation. Almost all of our major environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, were enacted during Republican Richard Nixon’s presidency—and with his support. In fact, before the election of 1994, conservation had long been a nonpartisan issue. After that election, however, newly installed Republican House leaders Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay redefined their party’s agenda to include giving big timber, oil, mining and development corporations pretty much whatever they wanted, and the votes of congressional Republicans have become ever more anti-conservation. (Gingrich resigned in disgrace in 1998 after a series of ethics scandals, and DeLay in November was found guilty of illegally laundering corporate money and of conspiracy related to the laundering.)

Before 1995 over half of Republican congressmen often voted more than 50 percent of the time for conservation. Since then the percentage has fallen steadily. In 2009, there were only 15 of 178 Republican members of Congress who voted at least 50 percent of the time for conservation; and the average Republican congressman’s score was a miserable 17 percent.

Contrary to what one might guess, I do not believe most Republican congressmen are philosophically opposed to conservation. However, since 1994 they have been expected to pay fidelity to a national party brand ever more firmly defined as including opposition to conservation in any form. Further, new and still junior Republicans who might otherwise favor conservation, are strongly disciplined by their congressional leaders who can directly influence their prospects for re-election.

And who will be the leaders in the new, Republican-controlled House? John Boehner, Speaker of the House, and Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader—both of whom voted against every significant piece of conservation legislation offered during the past two years. Equally foreboding, the new chairmen of the Natural Resources and Energy and Commerce committees, Doc Hastings and Joe Barton, also had zeros on the most recent Defenders Action Fund conservation report card. To add insult to injury, they have replaced as chairmen, Democrats Nick Rahall and Henry Waxman, who had scores of 80 percent and 100 percent, respectively. Another sign of trouble: on the issue that most threatens wildlife in this century, global warming, whereas Waxman was a key leader in passing wildlife-friendly climate legislation in the House during the last Congress, Barton decries as a hoax the widespread scientific evidence of global warming.

This doesn’t mean conservation and imperiled wildlife are necessarily doomed to be seriously harmed by Congress for the next two years. But it does point out that in conservation, as in other areas of public policy, elections have consequences—and one from the November election is that the attacks on wildlife are likely to again become extremely serious and difficult. It matters not that this past election’s consequences for wildlife are not ones the voters intended.

There is no question that the situation is very serious. But Defenders has succeeded in protecting wildlife against powerful political and special interests before, and we can do so again now—if we have your support. I’m confident of our ability to prevail. So confident, that before the fighting starts, I may repeat something World War II hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur once did—and that was to decorate his troops before the battle. He knew they’d earn it. And I know Defenders’ staff will earn it, too.  

More Articles from Winter 2011

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