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In Cleveland, the Conservative Movement Turned Its Back on Conservation

Buried inside its 2016 political platform, the Republican Party proposed an unprecedented attack on this country’s system of protected federal lands. The Antiquities Act, the Endangered Species Act, and wild Western birds are targets too.

By Jimmy Tobias


(Photo: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)

Move beyond the controversial political connotations, and the word conservative is meaningful, even admirable. Its roots link it closely to the concept of preservation. It indicates prudence in relation to change and transformation. It signals restraint. The word shares a Latin ancestor with another venerable member of the English language: conservation.

Ronald Reagan, patron saint of Republicans everywhere, once said: “What is a conservative, but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live.” True enough, but his message seems to have lost its sway among today’s right-wing political elite. As practiced in Washington, D.C., at least, conservatism no longer means conservation.

The passage of this year’s Republican Party Platform was the turning point. Never before has the GOP, the party of Theodore Roosevelt — the man who signed the Antiquities Act into law and created hundreds of national forests, parks, and bird reserves — so enthusiastically embraced an assault on the lands, waters, and wildlife of the United States.

Read the document. Flip through reams of anti-gay, anti-choice policies, made to sound nice under a soft sprinkling of elegant language. On page 21, one finds an official party endorsement of the most extreme anti-conservationist effort in a century: the so-called land transfer movement.

As practiced in Washington, D.C., at least, conservatism no longer means conservation.

“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states,” the platform reads. “We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands….”

That dull-sounding assertion is a rude rebuff to generations of Americans, including countless Republicans, who have fought to protect this country’s most pristine landscapes from development and privatization. By stripping control of hundreds of millions of acres of public land from the American people and handing it over to relatively unaccountable state governments, land transfer would fundamentally rob the citizenry. State control of federal land would also likely lead to the privatization and possible industrialization of national forests, grasslands, and wildlife reserves now held in perpetuity for conservation purposes. Just look at Idaho’s history of selling its lands to private interests, including its sale of more than 200 acres of waterfront property along the fish-rich Snake River to a private angling club as well as a private golf course. According to Wilderness Society researchers, since statehood Idaho has sold more than 1.7 million acres of its public land to private interests, often timber or livestock operations.

Even in the George W. Bush administration, which had a not-so-sterling public lands record, widespread divestiture of the federal domain would have been unthinkable. But a concerted effort by libertarian, oil-fueled billionaire funders and their vast network of shell organizations and foot soldiers — the same network, incidentally, that has been funding climate denial campaigns for more than a decade — has pushed the party far to the right on the issue of public land management in the West. One possible motive: The public lands are filthy rich in oil, gas, timber, and coal.

On to page 22, where the party goes after the Endangered Species Act, which, evidently, it would like to re-write. The platform says Endangered Species Act protection must be done “in consideration of the impact on development of lands and natural resources.” Such a stance would invalidate the law’s intended purpose, which empowers science alone to determine the protection status of an imperiled species.

The platform also explicitly opposes the Endangered Species Act protection of the sage grouse, a large beleaguered bird that lives on some of the finest wild land in the American West. Why does the party give a hoot about a chubby chicken-like creature that lives scattered across remote stretches of arid steppe? Simply put: The bird shares its home with some of the richest oil and gas deposits in states like Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. The fossil fuel industry, along with other land-use interests, has fought with savage vigor to keep the bird from receiving federal protection in any form.

The platform reads like a conservation law kill list, with the Antiquities Act just another target. Passed in 1906 by President Teddy Roosevelt, it allows the executive to protect public landscapes with a stroke of the pen. Barack Obama has made good use of the law, creating just last month the Stonewall National Monument in New York City. He’s also considering protecting a vast swath of land in southern Utah that’s sacred to native tribes. The Republican platform seeks to eviscerate the law by enabling Congress, as well as respective states, to get the final say on any new monument designations. Such a change would destroy the law’s unique and useful ability to protect land in an age of partisan gridlock, which, I suppose, is the point. Teddy wouldn’t be pleased.

At the highest level, American conservatism has forsaken American conservation. It has boldly abandoned its own past. Will true conservatives, will conservationists, stand for it?