Essay by Stephen Stuebner
They moved to Boise
to kayak the Payette River's world-class rapids. They came to Salt
Lake City for Wasatch powder snow, the lightest on earth. They came
to Seattle for Starbucks Coffee, Mount Rainier and the cutting-edge
Since the early 1990s, thousands of
people have moved to the Pacific Northwest, the Intermountain West
and the Central Rockies to play in the mountains and enjoy the
highly rated fly-fishing, skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing,
and whitewater boating. Many came from Southern California. Sick of
high crime and high taxes, they sold their homes for $500,000 or
more, bought nicer homes for one-fourth the price, and retired
Until the 1994 election, environmental and
Democratic leaders were licking their chops. Finally, they thought,
we've got a new crop of fair-minded people who will vote for
quality of life and toss out the old-guard Western Republicans who
support resource-extraction industries at the expense of the
environment - things like cheap grazing fees for ranchers, salvage
clearcuts for the timber industry and $5-an-acre patent fees for
open-pit gold mines.
But everyone knows what
happened in 1994: The Democrats took a
"The environment doesn't count on
election day," says Greg Cawley, a University of Wyoming political
science professor. "The polls suggest that the American public
supports the environment, but the irony is that there's no proof
that voting for the environment buys politicians anything at all."
Come November "96, however, the environment is
expected to be a big deal at the ballot box. Newt's Republican
Contract With America didn't mention anything about the
environment, but Congress waged an unprecedented assault on the
nation's environmental laws in the last two consecutive years.
Lawmakers gutted the Environmental Protection Agency's budget.
Congress placed a moratorium on the listing of new endangered
species. Western lawmakers such as Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, browbeat Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt
over his proposed grazing reforms and they proposed neo-Sagebrush
Rebellion legislation that would give the nation's BLM lands back
to the states.
Even Business Week magazine
suggested that the environment would be a key election issue in
1996. "Eco-activists are readying their biggest ever
get-out-the-vote effort this fall," a Business Week article
The League of Conservation Voters, a
Washington D.C.-based public interest group, gave most Republican
senators and representatives "zero" scores for their voting record
on 13 environmental issues. Craig and Young were no exception. The
League is targeting Republicans who have done the most
Should be a field day for pro-environment
Democrats in 1996, right? Not necessarily. Cawley looks back to
1984, when former President Reagan ran for a second term, with
anti-environmental baggage weighing heavily on him. Reagan had
appointed the likes of James Watt as his Interior secretary and
timber industry attorney John Crowell as assistant director of
Agriculture, with direct oversight of the U.S. Forest Service. Did
he lose any political points? Not really. Reagan trounced Democrat
Walter Mondale, carrying 49 states.
associate professor of political science at the University of Utah,
says Westerners of all kinds are torn between supporting
Republicans to hold the line on spending and endorsing Democrats
for their typically more moderate social and environmental
"There's a strong perception out there
that the Democrats are not capable of delivering on a balanced
budget," McCool says. "The Democrats have had 40 years to balance
the budget and they haven't done it. At the same time, 80-85
percent of Americans say they're environmentalists and the majority
would pay higher taxes to protect the environment."
McCool sees environmental issues as the "trump
card" for Democrats in 1996. But he's not sure if the public will
trust Democrats on fiscal issues. "Right now, we in the West have
to make a choice between mega-deficits and raping the environment.
Until we have a new choice, it's not really a good choice either
Another factor in the 1996 general
election is whether Democrats can field capable candidates with
hefty financial support and the political savvy to beat incumbent
Western Republicans. As a general rule, incumbents win 90 percent
of the time, political experts say, and unprecedented levels of
industry political action committee (PAC) funding will make any
incumbent a formidable foe.
To truly make a
difference, however, political experts say Democrats will have to
expose Republicans' voting records and show how they affect people
at home, how they might ruin a favorite fishing hole or recreation
spot. "The environmental movement has succeeded in developing an
abstract environmental conscience in the American public," Cawley
says, "but locally, environmentalists haven't been as effective.
There is an absence of local proof."
on election day whether Westerners - both newcomers and natives -
are concerned enough about Congress' environmental record to make a
statement at the polls.
Stephen Stuebner reports
from Boise, Idaho.