Across the Ideological Divide

by Rocky Barker

Boise wolf advocate Suzanne Laverty was en-
gaged in one of the dozens of debates with live-
stock industry representatives in 1994 when the gauntlet was laid down.

"If you guys like wolves so much why don't you pay for them yourselves?" said the Idaho Cattle Association speaker.

"Why not?" thought Laverty, the program director for the Idaho-based Wolf Education and Research Center.

Environmentalists had been touting polls for years that showed overwhelming support for wolf reintroduction nationally and even in western states. If the polls were true, then a national fund-raising campaign ought to be able to come up with a good part of the money to put wolves on the ground.

Recovering endangered species is the federal government's responsibility, many environmentalists told Laverty. If they agreed with such a concept they could never afford to spend all the money necessary to protect endangered species and wild places. Nor could they hope to outbid developers for wildlife habitat.

When wolves were finally brought in from Canada after nearly twenty years of study and political delays, the major objection of most westerners was the cost to taxpayers. The use of private money was becoming more attractive, especially for research and education.

Then later in 1994 Senator Conrad Burns, R-Mont., no friend of the wolf recovery program, shifted $200,000 of U.S. Fish and Wildlife funds from wolves to work on whirling disease, a threat to Montana's multi-million dollar fly fishing business. If money couldn't be found privately, reintroduction might have to be delayed. Biologists said all of 1995's successes could be wasted if more wolves aren't released this winter.

Laverty went back to environmental groups and to the large foundations that fund much of the conservation movement in the West. Defenders of Wildlife, the group that already was funding a program to compensate ranchers for livestock losses from wolves, joined as well as the Yellowstone Natural History Association and the Call of the Wild Foundation out of Denver.

"We didn't find a lot of willing partners," Laverty explained. So the Wolf Center went to the American people. They sent out a direct-mail appeal to 76,000 people. In the first six days of the campaign they received $23,000. The checks are averaging $40 and range from $2 in cash from school children to $500 checks from machine shop employees back east.

They brought in more than $120,000 and covered half of the costs of reintroduction.

"They put their money where their mouth was," said Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist running the wolf reintroduction program.

The Wolf Center's "user pays" is only one of the surprising successful strategies that has grown out of the wolf reintroduction program moving ahead the general cause of environmental protection. The philosophy is not new. It has been at the heart of proposals by environmental libertarians like Randal O'Toole, of Oregon, who has called for raising user fees for national parks, national forests, and wilderness areas. For years he and others like him have been relegated to to the edge of the conservation movement.

Now that Republicans have taken control and are cutting federal environmental spending willy nilly, O'Toole and his ideas are gaining support. One of the most prominent voices has been that of Dave Foreman, a founder of Earth First!, and one of the most strident defenders of wilderness anywhere.

"When conservationists cry about funding cuts for national parks, we stumble into the morass of the victim, of irresponsible citizens who want their entitlement handouts," he wrote in the Fall 1995 issue of Wild Earth. "Instead of whining about the end of social welfare, we conservationists can take the lead in the debate about a new world of limits."

Such a position restores environmentalists to the high ground both politically and ethically. Ranchers, miners and loggers and other industries that benefit from federal subsidies also should take heart.

If ranchers want to continue the animal damage control program then they ought to be willing to pay for it themselves. That doesn't mean state taxpayers should pick up the tab as currently done, but the livestock industry itself.

Protecting wildlife, fish, and wild lands remains a national responsibility. It benefits all of us and so all of us should be willing to pay in the form of taxes.

But the days when we can go to Congress and get what we want are over. We have to go over their heads to the American people who love the same things we do.

In 1990, on the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, corporate America was spending millions of dollars to show its green stripes. The catch phase was "every day is Earth Day" and everyone from Clearcut, Inc., to Amalgamated Toxic and Sludge were touting its environmental record.

By 1995, the theme was reflected in the title of Newsweek writer Gregg Easterbrook's new book A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism. He argued in his book and in the April 10 New Yorker that environmental laws of the last 25 years have been a "stunning success"

"In both the United States and Europe, environmental trends are, for the most part, positive," Easterbrook writes. "Environmental regulations, far from being burdensome and expensive, have proved to be strikingly effective, have cost less than anticipated, and have made the economies of the countries that have put them into effect stronger, not weaker."

Ironically, the two groups that reject Easterbrook's rosy vision are environmentalists and anti-government conservatives. Both camps, by habit, ideology, and personal interest cannot accept his view.

Environmentalists, the group most responsible for awakening the national consciousness to the problems of pollution and habitat destruction, are the most problematical. They continue to present the world as spinning toward an ecological disaster. Aldo Leopold, the ecologist and environmental philosopher described their feelings way back in the 1940s, "one lives alone in a world of wounds."

Instead of celebrating the successes of their movement, they continue to dwell on the continuing problems. When wolves were finally released into Idaho and Yellowstone, many advocates were fighting amongst themselves instead of cheering together. On a personal level, many of my friends in the environmental movement are burned out from fighting what appears to be a never-ending battle with few measurable victories.

Environmentalists also find it hard to credit former opponents for changing their ways. Ranchers, loggers, and small business owners, who have quit many of the destructive practices of the past want desperately to get recognition for their efforts. When they don't get it they ask themselves, "Why bother?"

Then there are the strident libertarians and conservatives who cannot credit the accomplishments of environmental laws without recognizing the positive role government played in that success. It's easy to say the welfare state failed but its a lot harder to deny that smog levels have dropped dramatically in most American cities and our rivers and lakes are cleaner. Many industry groups would have you believe they have cleaned up their act voluntarily.

But in nearly every case I've covered for 20 years, polluters and land wreckers only stopped when environmentalists convinced the government or the courts to stop them. Once faced with reality though many of these same polluters often found innovative, cost-effective ways to go far beyond what they were required. As environmental stewardship becomes a central value in our society, fewer regulations and more incentives will be needed.

Look at the Soviet Union, a place that never experienced Earth Day. Environmentalists there were silenced just like anyone who didn't support the socialist-industrial elite. Today, millions of acres of land are polluted, cities are smoggy and many ecosystems are destroyed.

Many westerners don't recognize the benefits of environmental regulations because our region was still relatively untouched by the worst kinds of air and water pollution in 1970. Except for isolated cases--air pollution in towns like Pocatello, Idaho and Missoula, Mont. and heavy metal river pollution from mining in the Couer d'Alene watershed--the costs of environmental degradation were hidden from westerners. That made them gird at the restrictions even more.

But anyone who was in Pocatello in the early 80s remembers how dirty its air was. It wasn't until the late 80s that federal standards were enforced and until then pollution levels consistently exceeded health standards. Today, the haze has cleared significantly as the two major polluters have been forced to cut emissions. Everyone breathes easier.

Because there has always been bipartisan support for environmental laws, Americans had become complacent. After House Republicans indiscriminately attacked these laws and attempted to make them harder to enforce, they were roundly chastised in their home districts. Environmental protection was one of the issues that allowed the Democrats to gain seats in the House.

The public is smarter than either side realizes. A Time/CNN poll in 1995 reported that 55 percent polled would increase government spending on environmental protection. A majority of respondents in a 1995 Times Mirror poll agreed with the statement that "government regulation of business usually does more harm than good," yet 78 percent of the same group also think that "this country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment."

Where Easterbrook failed is in his dismissal of complicated threats like global warming, and the loss of biological diversity and population growth. We have succeeded in turning around many of the short-term environmental trends, but these longer-term threats, which are harder to prove and to prevent, continue to threaten at the least, our quality of life.

In the Pacific Northwest we watch as Snake River sockeye and chinook salmon and bull trout move toward extinction. We might be able to live without them. But do we want to?

A hundred years ago Americans completed the war to subdue the Indians of the West and to take their lands. Filmmaker Ric Burns said in his recent series, The Way West, that the clash between whites and Indians was a collision between two incompatible cultures, visions, and dreams. I have heard many discussions among environmentalists about the incompatibility of cattle on the range or the unsuitability of mining anywhere. Sierra Club members recently voted overwhelmingly against all timber cutting on public lands.

In making that case they have to accept the moral imperative that white settlers did in 1846 with the idea of Manifest Destiny. They will have to defeat their rural western neighbors with the same finality the Army beat the Indians at Wounded Knee. They also will have to live with the guilt about the people and culture they replace.

I, however, believe my dream of a wild, natural, West is compatible with the dreams of many ranchers, loggers, and yes even miners. That belief also requires me morally to seek a path that leads to a common future.

The federal government built the dams that are killing the salmon. The federal government has subsidized the clearcutting millions of acres of forests and the overgrazing of even more land. If the failures of the Clinton administration haven't taught us anything they should have taught that depending on federal protection of environmental values is a flawed strategy. The federal government will always be managed by politics and politics will always be vulnerable to money. Money and power obviously has its effect at the state and local level. But at ground level--in a watershed or along smaller natural boundaries--reason and enlightened self interest can overcome the pressures of external forces.

We will not protect the West we love on the backs of our neighbors. It's time instead to challenge westerners to save the West for ourselves.

Just as western communities cannot depend on corporate fat cats from Wall Street to look out for their interests, environmentalists can't rely on Washington to protect theirs.

We need to reach across the ideological canyons and begin working together. My own inspiration is the work of Jan Brown, who as director of the Henry's Fork Foundation joined with her former adversary Dale Swenson, director of the Madison-Fremont Irrigation District, in forming the Henry's Fork Watershed Council.

They have replaced polarization, misunderstanding, and confrontation with trust, education, and cooperation. Together they are addressing water quality issues, economic development, even road-building, grizzly bears, and salmon.

Ranchers, miners, and loggers in Lemhi County Idaho reached a cooperative agreement with the Idaho Conservation League, state, and federal agencies to protect salmon and bull trout habitat. If they succeed with the program more habitat for salmon spawning may be made available even on private land.

These collaborative programs are not the only answer but they are a better answer than the polarized wars of the past. When teamed with a "user pays" attitute and a hard look at where government can best protect environmental values, the strategy at least offers hope to stem the tide of development and habitat destruction.

Rocky Barker is a writer in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Some of his other writings may be found at

Electronic Drummer | Different Drummer | The Environmental Movement | The State of the Environmental Movement