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The delegates and the ghost of Teddy R.

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robinglis | Sep 08, 2008 11:35 AM

My Greyhound bus recently crossed the Colorado state line, putting me squarely back in HCN’s coverage area. So perhaps it’s now time to ask: what did I learn about the West – and Western environmental politics – in my journey away from the region?

The main thing I learned about Western Republicans is that they all see themselves as pro-environment. Many of them still don’t believe in global warming. Many of them are excitedly hoping that Palin will influence McCain to become more in favor of oil and gas drilling. Most of them participated in the raucous chants of “Drill, baby, drill,” that echoed through the Xcel Center on a nightly basis. Still, they think of themselves as supporting conservation.

“I get offended when people from the East say they love the land more than I do,” said Enid Mickelson, a delegate from Draper, Utah. “I think we all care about conservation. I think we all want to make sure there are areas we set aside to keep pristine.”

“When it comes to developing energy and protecting the environment, most Republicans are conservationists,” delegate Chris Harriman from Idaho told me. And Chris has put his money where his mouth is: he owns a company involved in geothermal power exploration.

It’s tempting to dismiss these sorts of comments as delegates trying to make themselves and their party sound good to a reporter. But I think the real story is more complicated. The Western Republicans I met in Minneapolis seemed pretty sincere in their expressions of environmental values. They were just convinced that a lot of our environmental regulations go too far.

This perception – common among the delegates I talked to – that existing environmental regulations are too onerous is probably the result of confusion about what those environmental regulations are. But can you really blame them for being confused? I’ve been living and breathing NEPA and the Endangered Species Act and the Roadless Rule for the past three months, and I still don’t have them all the way figured out.

And the harder something is to understand, the easier it is to misconstrue. Case in point: the recent controversy over Colorado’s regulations on oil and gas drilling. The usually industry-friendly Colorado oil and gas commission wanted to make some modest improvements to the rules governing streamside setbacks and winter habitat, among other things. They got slammed by a misleading industry ad campaign that claimed the regulations would destroy jobs.

Contrast that with a recent success story in Colorado conservation, the Telluride valley floor. A developer wanted to put a whole bunch of houses, apartments, stores, etc. on 572 acres on the outskirts of Telluride. The town was able to condemn the land. Then, through donations and a bond issue, the town came up with the $50 million to buy the land and preserve it.

My guess is that it would have been pretty easy to get Chris and Enid and many of the other Republicans I met this week to support the preservation of the Telluride valley floor. My guess is that it would have been very difficult to get them to support the new oil and gas rules. As we’ve discovered in the debate over global warming, it’s hard to rebut a campaign of coordinated disinformation about a complicated topic, especially when that disinformation confirms people’s prejudices.

I think the lesson for conservationists wanting to recruit help from Republicans is to be at once more and less ambitious. Less ambitious in proposing rule changes – like the Colorado oil and gas rules or the Roadless Rule – that affect the management of huge swaths of land. More ambitious in trying to preserve land outright, either through buying private land or designating public land as wilderness, instead of just making sure it gets developed “responsibly.” The need to preserve specific beautiful pieces of land is something that anyone, even an RNC delegate, can understand.  Incremental rule changes may seem more moderate, but in the end they open us up to being misconstrued as hair-splitting lovers of bureaucracy.

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