A crossed heritage in the modern West

  • When was the last time you saw a Democratic candidate skinning an elk or holding a deer rifle?

    Matt Muerker

Imagine picking up your paper some morning and reading a story like this: "President George W. Bush called on Americans to support the administration in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil exploration. The president also called for designating more wilderness areas, since 'the destructive fires of last summer all began in areas that had been laced with roads and logged heavily, and those fires faded out once they reached wilderness areas.'

"Responding to the president's remarks, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said, 'We're the party of the little guy. And the little guy needs good jobs and affordable oil and wood for his house. That means more logging and drilling, not setting aside American resources for the whims of the elitists in the Republican Party.' "

That sounds more than fanciful today, but if both parties had remained true to their roots, it would be a likely scenario. Environmental protection, especially 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.

Times, obviously, have changed.

Theodore Roosevelt is doubtless the most famous Republican conservationist, but the process started well before he entered the White House in 1901.

By the time he left office in 1893, President Benjamin Harrison, a patrician Republican, had protected 13.5 million acres as "forest reserves," the ancestors of our modern national forests. Before the law was changed in 1907, Republican presidents had set aside nearly 150 million protected acres. Democrats had protected 20 million.

Some opposition came from industry-minded Republicans, but much of it came from Western Democrats. Sen. Henry M. Teller of Colorado was typical - federal protection of forests on public lands was an intrusion on states' rights, and it deprived his mountain constituents of their livelihoods. "I would rather see people living on the land than to see timber on it, no matter how beautiful it is or how fine," Teller said in 1908.

Against Democratic opposition, Republicans continued to support conservation long after Teddy 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."

And most of our current environmental laws - the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the requirements for environmental impact statements, even the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency - took form during the presidency of Richard Nixon, a Republican.

Back then, the Republicans were the patricians who wanted to protect the environment from the little guys who were the backbone of the Democratic Party. Now it's been reversed, at least on the ground in the West.

How did this happen? Blame it on Goldwater, who, in his 1964 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, defeated the party's Eastern establishment. 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, and hunting rifles.

Nationally, the Republicans might be the party of big corporate power, but in the West, the GOP is the party that wants to "protect public lands for the people, not from the people." It's the Democrats who want to "lock up" public lands by restricting vehicles, limiting mineral exploration, and the rest.

Those are perceptions, though. Which party actually represents the "little guy" these days, at least when it comes to the great outdoors? The answer may be found in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, which has a chart that lists recreational activities and household income.

Of the relevant pursuits, both alpine and cross-country skiing rank near the top Ð these are the sports of the relatively affluent. Mountain biking is up there, too, along with snowboarding. Down at the very bottom, in what should be solid Democratic economic territory, are freshwater fishing (despite all those annoying, graphite-rod yupscale anglers), hunting with bow and arrow, and hunting with firearms.

When was the last time you saw a Democratic candidate skinning an elk or holding a deer rifle?

Some Democrats, it seems, are catching on. In Idaho's Senate race, Democratic candidate Alan Blinken has been driving the campaign trail this fall in a car that sports a bumper sticker reading, "I'm a gun-totin' Idaho Democrat." He told The New York Times he moved to Idaho because he likes to fish and hunt. "I'm a gun nut," he said. "I own eight pistols, eight rifles, eight shotguns, and I use them all."

Alaska Democratic gubernatorial candidate and lifelong hunter Fran Ulmer made a big deal out of buying a new gun for the campaign trail earlier this year. It seems her other eight guns, which include a long-barrel .44-caliber Magnum revolver, don't fit well in a suit pocket.

But it's more than guns that alienate Democrats from many Westerners. It's more like machinery in general. In the December 2001 edition of Atlantic Monthly, David Brooks contrasted a nearby portion of "Red America" (Bush country, specifically Franklin County, Penn.) 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."

Or, as my Republican friend Dave Skinner, a former writer for the "Wise Use" People for the West, put it: "When it comes to the outdoors, Democrats are the dour puritans. You're in sacred places and you're supposed to be reverential and practice the proper rituals. We Republicans, we're about having some fun. Guess who's going to get the most votes where people enjoy outdoor recreation?"

For the past 25 years or so, the Republicans have flowed with the cultural currents of the rural West. They've been the party of guns and jeeps, and they win elections; they get the votes of the people who get hurt most by the national Republican economic policies designed to make sure the rich get richer. The little guy in the little town might not have medical care or a job that pays him enough to move out of the trailer park, and his kids may go to ramshackle schools - but he seems to care more about his gun and his pickup, and when it comes to those, the Republicans are on his side.

Ed Quillen is a columnist for the Denver Post and publisher of Colorado Central Magazine.

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