Acquaintance of the Earth

Teddy Roosevelt was the first national politician to care actively about what we now call the environment. The parks, refuges, monuments, and preserves he set aside in his terms in office have remained intact throughout the nation. And he acted not from political calculation, but from sheer love of the land. When McKinley died, the news reached him in the heart of the Adirondacks where he was busy climbing Mount Marcy, the Empire State’s highest peak.

So it is no small shame that conservatives have emerged as the great enemies of conservation and environmental work a century later. With a few notable exceptions like New York governor George Pataki, the Republican Party in the years since Richard Nixon launched the EPA has dedicated itself to blocking virtually every important environmental initiative: every effort to curb the Forest Service’s rapacious logging comes up against merciless conservative opposition; the heavily Republican Western congressional delegations protect mining and ranching interests against even modest reform, and do their best to block schemes, like the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, which would have gladdened TR’s heart. When Newt Gingrich first took power, one of his early mistakes was to take seriously a proposal to shut down numerous national parks. George Bush senior helped lose himself the presidency by taunting Al Gore as Ozone Man; one of Reagan’s cabinet ministers advised that we deal with the destruction of the stratosphere not by banning fluorocarbons but by wearing baseball caps; the Great Communicator himself apparently believed that trees were a major source of pollution.1

Against such a backdrop, Peter Huber’s “conservative manifesto” for the environment is welcome. With considerable courage, braving attacks from both the establishment right and the politically tone-deaf ideological purists of the various think tanks, Huber salutes Roosevelt for his true greatness as a federal conservationist. He announces straightforwardly that “great wide-open spaces are valuable because they are great and open,” and calls for government to protect more wilderness for its “aesthetic” value. That such remarks sound shocking coming from a self-described conservative says a good deal about the modern conservative movement. Still, as with the child watching the naked emperor strut by, it sometimes takes an honest innocent to say the most obvious things. There are deep problems in the rest of Huber’s book, but at least it opens a dialogue where none had existed, and for that he deserves credit.

He begins his manifesto by breaking environmentalists into two camps: “soft greens,” who chase after will-o’-the-wisp problems like climate change or pesticide exposure, and “hard greens” in the TR tradition, who care about scenic grandeur and will let the market solve other challenges. A genuine understanding of nature would concentrate on places that are, in his words, “awesome, fascinating, or simply beautiful.” That, he implies, was TR’s standard, and Huber’s symbol for the decline of standards in the intervening century is the kangaroo rat: Roosevelt would have supported an Endangered Species Act for bear, bison, and cougar, he writes, but…

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