It hasn't always been this way. The protection of public lands was a mainstay of Republican policy for generations. Democrats, acting on behalf of their constituencies - public-land ranchers, silver miners, small timber operators - generally opposed the Republican conservation programs.
Theodore Roosevelt is doubtless the most famous Republican conservationist, but the process started well before he entered the White House in 1901. Republican presidents began setting aside "forest reserves," the ancestors of our modern national forests, in 1891, and by 1907, Republican presidents had set aside nearly 150 million of the 170 million protected acres.
Republicans continued to support conservation long after Theodore Roosevelt's departure. In 1948, Thomas Dewey of New York was the GOP's presidential nominee, and he spoke about environmental issues: "Wholesale cutting of timber land has contributed to the tragedy of floods in the spring and to a shortage of water at later seasons. The same wholesale cutting of timber has destroyed fish and wildlife habitats. It has upset nature's balance in a thousand directions."
Barry Goldwater, the GOP's 1964 nominee, loved the mountains, canyons and deserts of his native Arizona. When the Forest Service was considering a new off-road vehicle policy in 1973, Goldwater, then a senator, said, "I hope there is some way we could outlaw all off-road vehicles, including snowmobiles, motorcycles, etc., which are doing more damage to our forests and deserts than anything man has ever created. That was during the presidency of another Republican, Richard Nixon, who established the Environmental Protection Agency and a host of environmental laws.
Back then, the Republicans were the patricians who wanted to protect the environment from the rambunctious little guys who were the backbone of the Democratic Party. Now it's been reversed, at least on the ground in the West. Goldwater's 1964 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination defeated the party's Eastern Establishment, and by 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the nomination and the presidential election, the Republican Party's most energetic activists were Sunbelt populists - people who liked to get outdoors with their motorboats, four-wheel-drive rigs, hunting gear and the like.
And so, as recreation becomes the major public use of public lands, a new partisan divide has appeared. David Brooks caught it in an article in the December, 2001, edition of The Atlantic. He contrasted a nearby portion of "Red America" (Bush country, specifically Franklin County, Pa.) to "Blue America" (Gore country, specifically Montgomery County, Md.) where he lived.
One big difference, Brooks noted, is that "everything that people do in my neighborhood without motors, the people in Red America do with motors. We sail, they powerboat. We cross-country ski, they snowmobile. We hike; they drive ATVs."
Even if hiking boots are cheaper than all-terrain vehicles, and cross-country skis much more affordable than snowmobiles, the average household income in Red America is considerably lower.
And when you correlate household incomes with recreational pursuits "-information available in the Statistical Abstract of the United States "- you see another pattern. Alpine and cross-country skiing are sports of the relatively affluent. Mountain-biking and snowboarding are also popular in the upper brackets.
Go down to the very bottom of the income scale, in what should be solid Democratic economic territory, and you find freshwater fishing (despite all those annoying graphite-rod, yup-scale anglers), hunting with bow and arrow, and hunting with firearms.
But when was the last time you saw a Democratic candidate gutting an elk or holding a deer rifle? Some Democrats are catching on this year, though. In Idaho, U.S. Senate candidate Allen Blinke's car bears a bumper sticker: "I'm a gun-totin' Idaho Democrat," and he told the New York Times that "I'm a gun nut." In Alaska, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fran Ulmer made a production out of buying a new gun for the campaign trail this year, since her old .44 magnum revolver didn't fit well in her suit pocket.
Perhaps a few more Democratic candidates will get the idea. But until then, Republicans will be able to continue using their cultural message (the GOP is the party of guns and jeeps) to mask the GOP economic program of tax cuts for billionaires.
There are plenty of rural Westerners who could use the better jobs, better housing, better schools, better communications and other improvements that they might get by electing Democrats. But they seem to care more about their guns and their pickups, and the Republicans have noticed, even if most Democrats haven't.
Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Salida, Colorado.
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