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for people who care about the West

A little advice for environmentalists


Savvy environmentalists work both sides of the political street, rather than buying into any particular political party or ideology. I've concluded this after watching a dispute play out here in Oregon.

The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation have proposed building a gambling casino in Cascade Locks, a small town smack in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The project calls for 500,000 square-feet of destination resort and casino plus hotel, convention facility, spa, shops and parking for 3,600 cars. The increased traffic could require construction of a new interchange on an interstate highway.

Located on the banks of the Columbia River in the heart of the gorge, the casino complex would not be far from a popular trailhead, which hikers use to access the Hatfield Wilderness, and it would likely be visible from portions of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. Opponents also raised concerns about how the development might affect air quality, wildlife and the Historic Columbia River Highway. Even though he is usually sympathetic to environmental concerns, Oregon's Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski gave state approval for the casino. But opponents haven't given up; environmentalists joined with others to form the Coalition for Oregon's Future. If you're a liberal, hang onto your hat, because the groups making up the coalition include two flagships of the state's Christian Right: the Oregon Family Council and the Parents' Education Association, each of which opposes gambling on moral grounds.

This was wise strategy by the greens, particularly since the political pressure point in the casino controversy is George Bush's Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who would have to approve a "fee-to-trust transfer" of tribal lands to allow the casino to become a reality.

If only the environmental movement as a whole was as well schooled in realpolitik as the opponents of this casino-in-the-gorge development. Although liberal Democrats may now be ascendant in Congress and Oregon's statehouse, we all know that nothing in politics is permanent. So long as the environmental agenda depends upon the dominance of liberal Democrats, we lose ground when the political pendulum swings back to the right. And even when liberals are in power, they may not always be our friends. When political advantage beckons, some betray environmental values.

To survive in our polarized political landscape, outdoor advocates need to remain sufficiently unaligned so that we're free to forge alliances with liberals, moderates or conservatives as the situation dictates. We can't afford to write off any legitimate political blocs, even some that may cause liberals to hold their nose.

Which brings me to "World," a conservative Christian magazine that usually spouts opinions sure to curl the toenails of any liberal. But in its March 6, 2004 issue, columnist Gene Edward Veith argued that the Christian Right and environmentalists were natural allies in the fight against cloning. As a pragmatist, he said he recognized that creating such an alliance would require a certain amount of political back scratching: "We may have to give them some concessions and support them on some issues in return. For example, they are concerned about endangered species. And while this can be easy for us conservatives to mock, Christians, having a high view of creation, might pause."

That opens the door, and I'm willing to take a cautious step toward it. My goals for Oregon and the West are clean air and water, pure food and a healthy landscape awash in wildness. I'm not particular how we get there. If smart environmental politicking calls for sidling up to lefties on one issue and to righties on another, I can live with that.

I don't know about you, but my mailbox includes a steady stream of solicitations from local, regional and national environmental groups. My message to environmental fund-raisers is simple: "Want to earn my support? Then make sure your group transcends conventional partisan boundaries and avoids political correctness like the plague. If you're just grinding an ideological axe, count me out. But if you put environmental values before political purity, I'll reach for my pocketbook."

Bill Cook is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].