Will Conservatives Ever Get It?

Friday, October 30, 1998
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this is an image

Recently writer Peter Huber noted that environmentalism was invented by a conservative Republican—Teddy Roosevelt. If he is correct, where and why have conservatives lost their way and how can they get back on course?

Certainly Teddy Roosevelt’s intentions were good, but unfortunately those early conservation seeds have grown into our current environmental leviathan. And there seems to be little indication that the Republican Congress has any intention of beginning to dismantle the environmental state with the same tools it has applied to the welfare state. Instead, conservatives remain adrift in a sea of environmental regulations, either claiming that there is no environmental problem or calling for their own regulations in an attempt to be “greener than thou.” Since Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, there have been almost no environmental policy changes that even come close to welfare reform. Yet selling conservative conservation should be even easier for the party that invented environmentalism.

Step back for a quick review of our path to the environmental policy quagmire we face today. America’s first private conservation movement was rooted in the same soil as the Industrial Revolution, namely, entrepreneurship, private enterprise, and profits. In Seattle, the Becks established Ravenna Park in 1887 as a private park to preserve dwindling Douglas fir stands. Included in their park is the famous “Roosevelt tree,” named for the conservationist president who visited their private reserve. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, members of the Huron Mountain Club privately preserved thousands of wooded acres with protective covenants and even hired conservationist Aldo Leopold to advise them on management of what remains today one of the most pristine forests of the upper Midwest. Before wildlife laws protected birds of prey, Rosalie Edge single-handedly purchased Hawk Mountain, a promontory in Pennsylvania where people used to gather to shoot hawks on their annual migration, and closed it to the public to protect the hawks. Similarly, Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina was saved by Hugh Macrae, who saw profit potential in preserving this small wilderness in the late 1800s. Even the formation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 can be credited mainly to private efforts by the Northern Pacific Railroad. To be sure, the railroad was motivated by profits, but this simply highlights the important link between conservation and conservatism. As the old rancher’s adage goes, “if it pays, it stays.”


There is little evidence that the Republicans in Congress have any intention of dismantling the environmental bureaucracy.


These early private land conservation efforts were supplanted by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, his first forester, who established 150 million acres as national forest—reserves that today combine with other federal lands to encompass one-third of the nation. This Republican action marked the beginning of the political conservation movement that ultimately grew into today’s environmental leviathan. In fact, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act all have deep Republican roots.

There are, however, two distinct differences between Teddy Roosevelt’s environmental initiatives and today’s regulatory monster. First, when early environmental legislation was passed, the problems seemed dramatic and fixing them seemed easy. When there were no wilderness areas, reserving the 20 million acres that environmentalists said would be enough received no opposition. When the bald eagle was threatened with extinction, it was easy to pass the Endangered Species Act unanimously. When the Cuyahoga River was burning in Cleveland, it was easy to pass the Clean Water Act, even if it meant more governmental control of our lives. In essence we were picking the low apples from the tree.

A second difference between the old and the new is that early implementation of environmental regulations was much more decentralized and rational. For example, the early land agencies were controlled from the field, not from Washington. The driving force then was much more pragmatic than bureaucratic. Today, however, both of these points have been lost. There is nothing cheap about environmental policies that consume more than 2 percent of gross domestic product, and there is no aspect of governmental regulation that is more bureaucratic.

The time has come to take another tack; rather than getting off the environmental bandwagon, conservative conservationists should take the reins. And the first step is to recognize the difference between environmentalists and conservationists succinctly described by Peter Huber: “whereas the environmentalist mission is exclusionary, the conservationist mission is populist and inclusionary, welcoming humankind as an integral and legitimate part of nature’s landscape.” Conservatives must get back to thinking about environmental policy as if people matter.

For example, many environmentalists say they want to give trees, rocks, or endangered species legal standing. This means they want the government to regulate human activity for the good of nature. The conservative counter should be that we already have a way to give them standing—private ownership. Private property gives the owner a stake in preserving environmental assets. Private property rights make the environment an asset rather than a liability. From elephants in southern Africa to rain forests in Central America to water in the Columbia River, enviro-capitalists are showing how markets and property rights can be the environment’s best friend.


Private conservation efforts came first. Even the formation of Yellowstone National Park can be credited mainly to private efforts by the Northern Pacific Railroad.


In the case of public lands, environmentalists have put conservatives on the defensive by arguing that below-cost timber sales and other commodity production should be eliminated from the federal lands. For example, they point out that in 1996 the Forest Service lost $388 million on logging, $24 million on grazing, $18 million on mining, and $164 million on recreation. Conservationists have accepted this conclusion without following their fiscal instinct. The cause of the red ink is bureaucratic mismanagement and high costs, not subsidies.

A recent study by the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana, compares national and state forests and illustrates what efficient land management could mean. For every dollar the Forest Service spent between 1994 and 1996, it took in only thirty-one cents. State land management in twelve western states, by comparison, netted six dollars and fifty-eight cents for every dollar spent. The Forest Service averaged 202 employees per million acres while the states averaged only 43. Between1988 and 1991 the state of Montana spent about $65 per thousand board feet of harvest to administer its timber program. For the same period, national forests spent about $140 per thousand board feet. A mile of road in national forests costs about $50,000, but in state forests the cost is only $5,000 per mile.

The explanation for these differences should be obvious to the conservative—incentives matter. National forest officials depend on Congress, not efficient management, for funding. In contrast, state managers basically fund their budgets out of receipts. And—with net receipts or profits earmarked to fund public schools—teachers’ unions, school administrators, parent organizations, and school boards have good reason to serve as watchdogs for efficiency. Like shareholders in a corporation, they care about the bottom line over the long term.

Suppose the national forests were managed with the same efficiency as state forests? PERC estimates that logging on Forest Service lands could have turned a profit in 1996 of $85 million and that similar profits could be had from grazing, mining, and recreation.

Conservation and conservative follow one another in the dictionary because of their Latin roots, but conservatives should capitalize on the symbolic proximity. To be a conservative is to be a conservationist and vice versa. Conservatives should not just be on the environmental bandwagon, they should be driving it. Harnessing markets, private property, and profits works for all assets, and the environment is no exception. As Huber puts it, conservatives need to be “saving the environment from the environmentalists.”