As I was reminded by a recent family visit to the granite cathedrals of Yosemite, the conservation movement Abraham Lincoln inspired when he created the park during the Civil War helped heal a deeply divided nation. We need a rebirth of that movement today to help us find common ground once again.
Here in the Northwest, when “the mountain is out,” or the setting sun frames a halo over the Olympic Mountains, we can smile and thank the bipartisan efforts of that conservation movement. Generations of elected officials from both sides of the aisle fought together to protect these wild and scenic places for future generations.
But too often, some environmental groups reject this bipartisan heritage to seek what they call raw political power. And many on the right have reacted by turning their backs, effectively ceding this issue.
Former Gov. Dan Evans of Washington state, a Republican, was denied an endorsement in his U.S. Senate race by a national environmental group whose mission is to protect wilderness because he was not in their preferred party. But that rebuke only strengthened his resolve, and in a bipartisan vote a few years ago, Congress designated most of the Olympic National Park as the Daniel J. Evans Wilderness to honor his role in protecting 1 million acres in our state.
We need a rebirth of the conservation movement, one that rallies groups of all political persuasions around protecting the great outdoors for generations to come. The “Right” has shown it is ready to help raise an environmental Big Tent: Jacquelin Maycumber, a young Republican legislator from central Washington, starts her speeches by proudly saying she is a “Republican and an environmentalist”; Richard DeBolt, a Republican state legislator from Chehalis, has a plan to reduce our state’s net carbon emissions to zero; and Benji Backer, a University of Washington student, helped create the largest right-of-center environmental group in the nation, which in turn helped persuade Republicans in Congress to create the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation caucus.
The rebirth of the conservation movement can build on the frontier pragmatism of Presidents Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and the progressive ideals of the Founding Fathers. But it can also adapt some tools of today’s progressives.
The Washington Legislature last month set up a commission to develop “environmental justice” policies that ensure “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income.”
In other places, this lofty goal of environmental justice has become entangled in identity politics. We can’t let that happen here. To do justice, environmental policy cannot consider the interests of only some groups or ZIP codes: It should include all of our communities, including rural areas which struggle with hunger at rates disproportionately higher than urban areas.
Recognizing this need, a leading environmental advocate for protecting forests has looked at buying a sawmill in the Methow Valley in central Washington to help create jobs from trees harvested by the state to prevent wildfires. People who earn their living as stewards of the land, including farmers, ranchers, loggers or fisherman, should be able to earn living wages to pass their craft to the next generation.
Environmental protection and good jobs for working people is an idea we can all rally around.
The Sierra Club argues for “least cost planning,” an approach adopted by Washington state for transportation projects. Many on the right have argued for a similar “getting the most bang for the buck” approach for environmental initiatives. Spending our limited public funds wisely should be an idea left and right can rally around.
The rebirth of a conservation movement can rely less on one-size-fits-all rules set by a government, and more on a local, consensus-building approach like that developed by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center. Ask the fishermen and oyster farmers to work directly with the upstream farmers and loggers to find the best way to address water quality issues. Native American tribes, which often include fishing and logging operations, have been stewards of our land and water for thousands of years. We must learn from insights they have gained over generations.
What Lincoln called the American Experiment was in peril when, in his first inaugural address, he called for a rejection of the “dogmas of the quiet past” and said the country must “think anew, and act anew … [to] save our country.”
One of Lincoln’s new ideas — Yosemite National Park — helped launch the conservation movement. It’s now time for a rebirth of that movement, where all sides check their partisanship at the door as they come into a Big Tent to save the great outdoors and our country.
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