03/02/2012 11:57 am ET Updated May 02, 2012

The Conservation Disjunct: A Republican Heritage Any Good Democrat Would Love to Embrace

A curious epiphenomenon of the current U.S. election cycle is renewed attack on an environmental agenda that is all but abandoned. One candidate rails against electric cars as part of an anti-American energy agenda, another decries "left-wing radical environmentalism." Part of a "great fear" campaign of expanding state control over American life, the environmental bogeyman is mainly found in speeches.

Ignoring the lack of evidence for an expanding environmental agenda -- after all, the nation has not changed greatly since the Gulf Spill, the climate change agenda is dead, and newly recovering Sandhill cranes and North American wolves are being lined up for hunting -- what boggles the mind is the misstatement of American sentiments about the conservation and environmental agenda, and the role of government and civil society in that debate.

We should remember that the left-wing radical environmentalists Richard Nixon, Howard Baker and Edmund Muskie passed the most significant legislation of our time -- the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. The known radical president William McKinley signed the Lacey Act prohibiting illegal sale of wildlife in 1900. The act's most significant amendments came under Presidents Nixon, Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush.

These legislative actions responded to genuine attacks on our nation's natural endowments of land, water, air and wild flora and fauna. Their conservation under the law has led to great revenue streams through managed hunting and fishing. The most recent national survey of hunting and fishing indicates that nearly 90 million Americans participate, spending more than $120 billion annually, generating millions of jobs and enormous value in environmental services.

These federal laws and others protecting wildlife and wild places responded to a central problem of society: government must act to protect public goods such as air (and national security, among others) and collective goods such as wildlife, because otherwise they will go unprotected. Without such protections, the nation's rivers were willfully polluted, and game slaughtered to extinction. With protection, our waters are cleaner and our wildlife more plentiful. By invoking the government as the enemy because of its still-tepid environmentalism, political candidates ignore the loss of topsoil in the Midwest, the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi Delta, the annihilation of mountain lions and wolves in the last century, the tragic history of the Housatonic River in Connecticut, or the ongoing 20-year, tri-state battle over water sharing among Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Other examples abound.

If presidential or congressional politics must find great enemies, we should at least demand an honest rendering of history. The Democrats who self-identify as environmentalists would dearly love to claim a Republican legislative heritage that GOP candidates seem desperate to deny.

Steven Sanderson is president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society.