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Republican Environmental Group Seeks To Put Conservation Back On The Conservative Agenda

First Posted: 10/20/11 09:26 AM ET Updated: 12/20/11 05:12 AM ET

Rob Sisson, the president of the group Republicans for Environmental Protection, walks something of a lonely road these days. His group, founded in 1996, aims to restore what it calls the "great conservation tradition" of the GOP.

"We think the Republican Party has lost its way the last couple of decades," Sisson told The Huffington Post in a recent interview. "We look at conservative talk radio and the Contract With America back in the early 1990's as kind of the point where the party diverged from its legacy."

That legacy reaches as far back as Abraham Lincoln, the nation's first Republican president, who signed legislation in 1864 to protect California's Yosemite Valley, laying the groundwork for what would become Yosemite National Park. Theodore Roosevelt, another Republican, later created hundreds of national forests, bird sanctuaries and reclamation projects during his tenure from 1901 to 1909. "The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem," Roosevelt once said. "Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others."

Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Richard Nixon, Sisson noted, "signed almost every major piece of environmental legislation that we take for granted today."

How profoundly things have changed.

It was back in July when Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman (Calif.) and Ed Markey (Mass.) first shined a spotlight on what they called "the most anti-environment House of Representatives in history."

At the time, they'd documented a total of 110 measures voted on by the Republican-controlled chamber that were aimed at scaling back protections for air and water, blocking climate regulation or dismantling measures designed to protect public lands.

On average, the lawmakers reported, 97 percent of Republicans voted in support of such measures.

As of this week, the number of such anti-environment proposals earning votes in the House has ballooned to 168, according to a database set up by Waxman, including one measure passed last Friday that would effectively block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coal combustion waste -- known as coal ash -- as a toxic material.

"I am pleased to see so many of my colleagues support this bipartisan, pro-jobs legislation," said Republican Rep. David McKinley (W.Va.), who sponsored the bill.

The White House, meanwhile, blasted the measure, arguing in a statement that it "undermines the Federal government’s ability to ensure that requirements for management and disposal of coal combustion residuals are protective of human health and the environment."

Most major environmental groups agree.

Meanwhile, several Republicans on the presidential campaign trail have been burnishing their own anti-environment credentials, with at least two proudly staking out what many consider to be philistine positions on climate change. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, for example, suggests climate change constitutes a "political agenda," while Texas Gov. Rick Perry insists that the science implicating human activity as a contributor to global warming "is not settled."

At Tuesday night's debate in Las Vegas, Perry also reiterated his plan to dismantle the EPA -- an agency created by Nixon.

"We are going to put an end to these job-killing EPA rules that are grinding our economy to a halt," he said.

Of course, there must be room for honest debate on any legislative or regulatory gambit -- particularly when weighing persistent economic languor against desires to, say, curb pollution or rein-in climate altering emissions. And many Democrats have joined in voting for measures designed to block expanded environmental regulations. Thirty-seven Democrats, for example, joined 230 of their Republican colleagues in passing last week's coal ash measure.

But setting aside the Republican inclination toward climate skepticism, which Sisson described as "disappointing," Perry's invocation of "job-killing EPA rules" or McKinley's reference to his "pro-jobs" coal ash legislation are misleading characterizations at best.

As Ruth Greenspan Bell, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, has pointed out, "Looking only at job losses inevitably ignores a larger truth: environmental spending creates jobs that offset losses." She continued:

Compared to overall spending in the economy, on a per dollar basis, spending on environmental protection and clean-up employs more than twice as many workers in construction (11 percent versus 4 percent) and 25 percent more in manufacturing (20 percent versus 16 percent). Plant closings and layoffs in response to environmental regulation are very rare, affecting only one tenth of 1 percent of all layoffs nationwide. Over [the] 1990-1997 period, 10 million U.S. workers were laid off for non-environmental reasons.

Bell also pointed to a recent report to Congress compiled by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which examined the costs and benefits of environmental regulations. Looking at federal regulations between 1999 and 2009 in which the relevant agencies both estimated and monetized the benefits and costs of those rules, the OMB analysis estimated that the annual benefits of regulation totaled between $128 billion and $616 billion. The annual costs: between $43 billion and $55 billion.

Even so, many in the G.O.P. long ago rejected environmental protection no matter where or how it is applied -- and they have done so to the dismay of Sisson and like-minded Republican voters. They often point to Russell Kirk, the conservative political theorist, who famously quipped "Nothing is more conservative than conservation."

Sisson says too many Republicans today are willing to turn their backs on sensible conservation measures -- even measures they once supported -- if it's politically expedient. "It's an unfortunate symptom of our times, how politicized and how polarized the politics has become," he said.

Whether Republicans for Environmental Protection can convince the wider audience of Republicans that clean air and water, protection of public lands, clean and efficient industry and other environmentally attuned ambitions are compatible with today's conservative values remains to be seen. It would seem a decidedly uphill battle -- though Sisson remains optimistic.

"We're probably the only conservation group in the country that wants to go out of business [and] our biggest dream is that the Republican party regains its conservation legacy," Sisson said. "I don't see the other side dropping it, so at that point it would become truly a bipartisan priority again, and there would be no need for an organization like ours."

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