“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” — Teddy Roosevelt, 1910
A century ago, America was led by a Republican President. Though he was born into New York wealth, at a young age he developed a love for nature and the outdoors. After taking office, he set aside 230 million acres of America as federally protected, public land. On it were five national parks, 150 national forests, 51bird reserves, four federal game reserves, and 18 national monuments. America was sacred to Mr. Roosevelt in a literal sense – the earth under our feet, the waterways which surround us, as well as the skies above our heads, were to be protected and preserved for future generations of Americans to enjoy.
Merriam-Webster defines “conservationist” as someone who works to protect animals, plants, and natural resources or to prevent the loss or waste of natural resources: a person who is involved in conservation.
Though we still refer to Republicans as the “conservative party” today, it has become quite difficult to call them “conservationists” with a straight face. Bear in mind that “conservative” and “conservationist” share the same root word – “conserve.” But Republican policies over the past 100 years have resulted in the two terms carrying completely opposite connotations.
So, what changed? The definition of “conservationist,” or the definition of “conservative?” Before we decide, let’s examine a handful of the policies and laws enacted and scrapped since conservationist hero Teddy Roosevelt occupied the White House.
The GOP’s movement away from environmental conservationism didn’t gather steam until the 1980s. Until then, Republicans had actually led the charge to preserve the “purple mountain majesty.” Long after Roosevelt’s efforts, Republican Richard Nixon signed the EPA into existence in 1970. But as Christopher Sellers describes in the article linked above, anti-regulation dogma in the West and South swept in new GOP leaders who painted virtually all efforts to protect the environment as bureaucratic overreach.
Climate change denier Scott Pruitt isn’t the first EPA Director who doesn’t much care for Environmental Protection. Reagan’s EPA director Anne Gorsuch (yes, Neil’s mom) worked to lessen the scope and budget of the agency she oversaw, and echoes of her strategy resonate through the actions of our current EPA boss. The GOP mantra in every aspect of politics has morphed into “Corporate profits good, regulations bad.” Across America, the environmental consequences to this theme of governance have been devastating.
I grew up in Central Appalachia, and coal is still being mined there today. The bustling boom towns have disappeared, but coal executives are doing better than ever. (Former coal baron Don Blankenship, a current Republican US Senate Candidate in West Virginia whose violations of mine safety laws led to the deaths of 29 miners and earned him a year in prison, actually resides on a $2.4 million compound outside Las Vegas.) Mechanization has led to more coal being shipped out of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky today than when actual mining jobs were at their peak in the 1950s. Coal is flying out of those hills at a record pace, but most of the jobs are gone, never to return.
The antiquated method of going underground to dig coal has given way to “mountaintop removal,” a practice that, in weeks, can level a mountain which was made over hundreds of millions of years. The non-coal containing earth removed must go somewhere, so it is relocated to “fill valleys,” lower-lying areas where over millennia, creeks and streams carved swaths through the rugged landscape.
In addition to destroying the beauty of one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, it is estimated that over 2000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried with the fill produced by mountaintop removal mining. Water quality invariably suffers, as electrical conductivity, as well as sulfate and selenium levels rise due to fill deposits. Downstream fish populations can be reduced by two-thirds, and thanks to the 1.5 million acres of forest already decimated by mountaintop removal mining, some bird species have seen their numbers reduced by more than half. Compared to the abundant corporate profits, the flora, fauna, and citizens of Central Appalachia matter little to lawmakers and coal executives.
Is this “conservative”?
On the western environmental front, the Trump Administration plans to dramatically reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments in Utah by over two million acres. These Monuments were designated by Presidents Obama and Clinton, respectively, and were obvious targets for a real-estate tycoon-turned-POTUS. It is estimated that over 100,000 archeologically meaningful sites could be destroyed. Since the land directly abuts Navajo Nation, this brings yet another slap in the face to Native Americans. The federally protected acres are sure to hold an untapped fortune for many of President Trump’s friends in the mining and real-estate development arenas. At Trump’s behest, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke will review and redraw the boundaries of 27 other national monuments as well. It is a safe bet that Zinke isn’t going to enlarge those boundaries.
The Great Plains are also feeling the sting of the GOP’s corporate cuddling. Last year’s drama surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline provided another good example of who our Republican-led government actually serves. It obviously doesn’t serve the people or their environment.
It may sound like I’m a proponent of huge government and endless bureaucratic red tape. I’m not. Overly restrictive regulations can crush the American ingenuity and innovation for which our country is known. However, I do believe there is a balance to be struck between regulation and lasseiz-faire capitalism. Ignoring the long-term environmental impact of policies which seek only to maximize profits jeopardizes our health and the health of our children. Modern GOP power players enjoy the money and benefits their roles provide, but shirk any accountability for the harm their policies bring. This must change.
Like many other prominent Republicans in the first half of the 20th Century, Teddy Roosevelt romanticized American landscapes, waterways, and wildlife. As a Republican conservationist, he felt compelled to preserve them for future generations of Americans. Over the past decades, the definition of “conservationist” hasn’t changed. The meaning of “conservative,” however, has shamefully morphed. As their tax cuts, resultant astronomical debt increase, and vile environmental policies prove, the only things Trump “Conservatives” wish to preserve and protect are their own investment accounts.
It is fitting to use beach erosion as an analogy to illustrate GOP environmental policy over the last century. Over time, millions of waves may render an entire coastline unrecognizable. In a similar manner, Teddy Roosevelt’s party has eroded his legacy in the decades following his death. Perhaps now is a good time to ask the modern GOP to guarantee the preservation of Mr. Roosevelt’s grave at Oyster Bay, so that Teddy may at least continue to roll over in it.