Take the green elephant off the endangered list


WASHINGTON, D.C. - When the congressional crunch comes - and come it will - over torpedoing the Forest Service road-building moratorium, or the president's plan to add 5 million acres of national park land to the wilderness system, or another slew of riders on an appropriations bill, here are some of the congressmen on whom the Clinton administration and environmental organizations will rely:

Christopher Shays of Connecticut, John Porter of Illinois, Porter Goss of Florida, Vernon Ehlers of Minnesota, Jim Leach of Iowa, Brian Bilbray of California, Sherwood Boehlert of New York.

One need not be a political sophisticate to see that they come from all over the country. Well, all over the country except the Rocky Mountain West. And even a political sophisticate might not be familiar with many or any of them. Outside their districts, these are not household names.

But neither their geographical heterogeneity nor their relative obscurity is as significant as their political party. These guys are Republicans.

Yes, the Republican environmentalist, once considered as endangered a species as the bull trout, is making a comeback, perhaps vigorously enough to help the bull trout one day. There is even one conservationist Republican - Rep. John Kasich of Ohio - among the party's potential presidential contenders.

Republican conservationists - heirs to Teddy Roosevelt, who helped create the national forests, John Saylor, who helped create the wilderness system, and Richard Nixon, who helped create the Environmental Protection Agency - never disappeared. They just assumed a low profile after their party took over Congress four years ago, dominated by folks with another attitude altogether.

During those four years, the breed would emerge from its semi-voluntary quiescence only on the rarest of occasions, and usually to little avail. Enough of them voted against the salvage-logging rider in 1994 to make the final count close, but the bill did pass. Last year, though, Boehlert, Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania and other moderate Republicans blocked an omnibus parks bill that might have decimated a few proposed wilderness areas.

That little success does not really explain the reinvigorated state of pro-environmental Republicans as much as the last election, the unhappy (for Republicans) events of last December and the latest poll results.

Start with that last item. The March survey taken by those estimable gentlemen, Peter Hart and Robert Teeter, for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, shows that by a 42-33 percent margin Americans hold a negative attitude toward the Republican Party. Everyone knows why. It's because of the events leading up to and culminating in the December vote to impeach Bill Clinton. Almost all Republicans voted for impeachment, including most of the environmentalist moderates. Of those listed above, only Shays voted against kicking the president out of office.

They weren't exactly pressured to do so by the party leadership. That would have been unseemly. Worse, it would have been leaked. And most of them no doubt really thought Clinton deserved it. But they were voting against the wishes of their constituents - always risky in the politics dodge - and there is no doubt that the leadership sent its message, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, that whoever voted against impeachment would be considered a bad little Republican, an offense punishable by being sent to his/her room, or perhaps losing a subcommittee chairmanship.

Either way, the moderates have done their partisan duty. Next time Tom DeLay or someone from his whip operation asks Leach, Porter, Connie Morella of Maryland or Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey to vote contrary to the wishes of their constituents, the answer is likely to be the legislative equivalent of "I gave at the office."

Besides, there are a few more moderates this year. The Republicans lost only five seats last November, but they were conservative seats. None of the 20 or so Republicans who followed Boehlert on environmental matters lost their seats. And conservationist Republican governors such as Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and George Pataki of New York won big. Seeing those results and reading the polls, another 10 or 15 Republican moderates in Congress decided to ... well, "come out of the closet" would not be the appropriate term; let's just say they grew bolder.

So on any given environmental vote, the "Boehlert wing" of conservationists can probably count on at least 30 votes. Considering that the Republicans have an 11-vote majority (10, really, because independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a de facto Democrat), that makes the GOP pro-environmental faction a potent force.

That's why administration officials aren't very worried about Western Republicans reversing either the national forest road-building moratorium or the recent suspension of mining activity along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana. And it's why they are not irrational to hope for favorable action from Congress on their anti-sprawl proposals and on getting more money to preserve valuable land.

And it may be why some of the Western Republicans who cling to the conviction that nature exists only for the creation of pulp, logs, earrings and beef are beginning to panic. You know a political cause is in trouble when (1) it tries to pretend to be its opposite, and (2) its fringes become fringier. Both are now happening to the foes of land-use protection. Last year, the House Republican Policy Committee issued a document proclaiming "The Historic Environmental Achievements of the 105th Congress." On examination, some of the achievements turned out to be less than historic (does anyone know what the Sonny Bono Memorial Salton Sea Reclamation Act is?) and others turned out to be less than Republican. But the point is that GOP leaders knew they had to try to seem at least slightly green.

On top of that came the formation of the Coalition of Republican Environmental Activists, urging "local solutions over Washington mandates, sound science over emotionalism, and common sense over extremism."

Well, who could argue with that? As it turns out, though, CREA is less a coalition than a press release and a Web site. Its effective Washington headquarters is in the office of Grover Norquist, the chief coordinator of the political right wing. Asked if he were a member of CREA, New York Rep. Boehlert told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Oh gosh, no. I belong to a respectable environmental organization."

Now comes a new grouplet, gathering in March for the first Property Rights Congress at the offices of the National Center for Public Policy Research. That's one of those corporate-sponsored entities which calls itself a think tank but is actually an adjunct public relations department. Those groups organizing this conference are less important than those that are not - the usual suspects such as Ron Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Pre-conference rhetoric indicates a greater-than-usual reliance on conspiracy-theory explanations for all environmental proposals.

As students of previous radical movements know, splinter groups do not develop during periods of strength. When the Weather Underground and the Progressive Labor Movement split from Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, that was a sign of SDS weakness.

Even the more restrained "property rights' extremists are losing their hold on Republicans as conservative as Alaska's Don Young, who now advocates buying more public land. Young is hardly about to join Boehlert and his allies on most forestry, mining and land-use votes. But he is about to work with them. There are too many of them to ignore. Now they know it. So do the clever among their adversaries.

Jon Margolis covers Washington, D.C., doings from Vermont. He is the author of the new book, The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, published by William Morrow.

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