Reichert may not be getting much love from Democrats in Congress, but he's found fans recently in surprising quarters — environmental and wilderness groups, energy activists and ecologists.

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WASHINGTON — Last fall, two congressmen from Washington state eyed each other warily in a Capitol Hill corridor as they discussed a bill that would expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area in the Cascades.

Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island, is a leading proponent of environmental protection. But he wasn’t the one pushing the wilderness bill. It was Rep. Dave Reichert, an Auburn Republican, and he was trying to persuade Inslee to co-sponsor the legislation.

Inslee had no intention of signing on to a bill that could improve Reichert’s environmental credentials. It wasn’t personal, just politics.

“We want to beat your ass in 2008,” Reichert quoted Inslee as saying. (Inslee’s office declined to comment.)

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“Jay, I’m not feeling the love here,” Reichert responded.

Reichert may not be getting much love from Democrats in Congress. But he’s found fans recently in surprising quarters — environmental and wilderness groups, energy activists and ecologists.

The man who shocked environmentalists in 2006 when he said he was unsure about global warming or what role humans might play has had a conversion to conservation that is almost religious.

The League of Conservation Voters today is expected to name Reichert one of the 10 most environmentally conscious Republicans in Congress.

He signaled his shift at least year ago when he issued a statement responding to President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union speech. “Reichert rejects ANWR as energy option,” the release blared, calling any oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a potential disaster.

Bush hadn’t mentioned ANWR, but Reichert intended to get out front on environmental issues that resonate in the 8th District, which covers eastern King and Pierce counties.

Wilderness protection? He’s there. Tougher CAFE, or fuel-economy, standards? There. Hybrid plug-in cars? There. Reducing greenhouse gases, protecting salmon habitat and reducing farmland pollution? There, there and there.

Skeptical Democrats question Reichert’s motivation. Doug Thornell, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said many Republicans in tough re-election races “are reinventing themselves.”

And Darcy Burner, Reichert’s Democratic opponent this fall, says his record is still poor compared with those of other Western Washington congressmen.

But environmental leaders interviewed for this story said the fact of Reichert’s green evolution is more important than the reasons why.

“He’s been with us on several important issues that industries oppose,” said Heather Weiner, a Seattle consultant on conservation policy. “Environment’s not supposed to be a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ issue anymore.

“Dave gets that.”

Moderate Republican’s value

Why is Reichert, a second-term congressman and in the minority, so important to the eco-movement?

“A moderate Republican is worth 10 Democrats on the environment,” Weiner said. “If you get 10 Republicans to sign a letter to the White House or vote for a bill, it has more legs … than if Democrats sign it or vote.”

Reichert was not always so popular with environmentalists. He voted in 2005 to eliminate the “critical habitat” provisions of the Endangered Species Act that limit development in certain areas. The bill was pushed by then-Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., the No. 1 nemesis of environmentalists.

“Dave was new, he was just a freshman, and remember, it was during the heyday of Tom DeLay and Richard Pombo,” said David Jenkins, government relations director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. Pombo was known for ruthless retaliation against dissenters.

Environmentalists and moderate Republicans descended on Reichert after that vote. Two months later, in December 2005, he broke with his party chiefs to vote against oil drilling in ANWR.

In 2006, Reichert’s voting record on issues important to the League of Conservation Voters jumped from 28 percent to 67 percent. The Republicans for Environmental Protection raised him from a score of 46 to 75.

By comparison, Reps. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, were at 17, up from minus-4.

Pombo then was ousted in the 2006 elections, and Republicans lost control of both the House and the Senate.

By early 2007, Reichert was not only against ANWR drilling, but he introduced a bill to also prohibit drilling in Bristol Bay, a salmon-rich area in southwest Alaska that the Bush administration wants to open to oil exploration.

When Reichert introduced the Alpine Lakes Wilderness bill, Inslee, who sits on the Natural Resources Committee, seemed the perfect co-sponsor. Reichert says Inslee told him it was “awesome,” but later sent Reichert word that he would not sign on.

“The Democrats’ goal is to make me look ineffective,” Reichert said.

Inslee’s staff said Inslee and other Democrats don’t want to push the Alpine Lakes bill until earlier legislation for the proposed Wild Sky Wilderness Area in Snohomish County passes.

That bill has been held up by Senate infighting.

Few in GOP are greener

Reichert’s current score with the Republicans for Environmental Protection is more than 90 percent.

“I don’t know of any member who is so willing to be out front on these matters, and whose positions have so dramatically changed,” Jenkins said.

For example, Reichert was one of the original co-sponsors of the farm bill, legislation prized by conservation groups.

The bill would provide money to build buffer zones to prevent fertilizers from entering salmon streams, and reduce direct subsidies to farmers for crops such as corn and soy that can harm the environment by leaching nutrients from the soil.

The Senate and House have passed versions of the farm bill, and a compromise is being negotiated by conference committee.

Perhaps most startling, Reichert was persuaded to support the Climate Stewardship Act, which would mandate reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions nationally, and is opposed by major business lobbies.

He met twice last summer with local representatives of the National Wildlife Federation and Earth Ministry, which brought a group of pro-environment local religious leaders to his district office.

Joelle Robinson of the federation led a group of scientists who met with Reichert to discuss global warming. Republicans for Environmental Protection also spoke with Reichert.

“I think what turned him around was the scientific breakthroughs,” Robinson said. “He wanted to see the evidence.”

In the melee over the energy bill in December, Reichert joined Democrats to vote for tougher CAFE standards. Afterward, even Greenpeace said, “We commend Representative Reichert.”

However, Reichert balked at supporting the Safe Climate Act, which would mandate the strictest limits on greenhouse-gas emissions of any bill. “I have some questions about elements of the legislation,” Reichert said, noting that many Democrats haven’t agreed to it, either.

Nor has Reichert signed on to the Roadless Rule bill, which would protect major portions of national forests from logging and mining roads, including more than 2 million acres in Washington.

“I am going to vote for it,” Reichert said. “I don’t have to co-sponsor everything.”

Burner said Reichert’s commitment to the environment “really depends on what standard you hold him to.”

Instead of allowing him “an enormous handicap because he’s a Republican,” she said, “he should be compared to the rest of the Western Washington members” who are strong environmentalists.

Reichert, however, wants to be compared to another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, a founder of the modern conservation movement.

In an op-ed in September in “The Hill,” a D.C. newspaper, he wrote, “For too long our party has rejected environmentalism.”

“For my Republican friends who fear economic repercussions,” he added, “let me assure you, good environmental policy can also mean sound economic policy.”

And, Reichert acknowledges, good politics.

“I’m listening to my constituents on these issues,” he said. “What’s wrong with that?”

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com