For the past 25 years or so, Democrats have been the party of protection for public lands, while Republicans have generally supported more mining, drilling, logging and grazing.
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."
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
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.
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.