Dispatches, September 1998
It wasn't particularly surprising — or even unusual — that more than 100 stalwart members of the Republican Party gathered last June in the Grand Ballroom of the J. W. Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C., to trumpet a cause. Nor was it peculiar that the evening was captained by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the GOP's lead trumpeter. What was mildly startling about the evening, however, was the cause that Gingrich et al. were feting: environmentalism.
As a nattily dressed congregation of legislators dined on petit filet mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, and seasonal field greens, Gingrich outlined plans for a bit of political larceny: stealing the issue away from the Democrats — traditional champions of the wilderness — via a conservative model of free-market environmentalism that, as the Speaker put it, would decisively defeat "the left-wing, litigious, adversarial, anti-technology model." Slightly confused shouts of amen erupted from the chorus.
By night's end, $100,000 had been raised, and a new alliance — the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates, or CREA — had been born. In Washington, the rumbles of skepticism were loud and immediate, arising not only from expected sources, such as the Sierra Club, but also from within the Republican party itself. Conspicuously absent from the nascent coalition was Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York, a moderate Republican who co-chaired Gingrich's last green effort, the ill-fated GOP Environmental Task Force, which collapsed under the weight of intra-party squabbling in 1996. "I was invited to join, but elected not to," Boehlert explained. "A lot of the members of this group have not been associated with environmental causes in any way prior to this, and I think you have to do more than identify yourself with an organization that has a pleasant-sounding name."
To many environmentalists, some of the more prominent members of CREA's host committee are anything but pleasant. Among them are Don Young, the Alaska congressman who has led the effort to sell off and develop federal lands and has called environmentalists "a waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual bunch of idiots"; Idaho Senator Dirk Kempthorne, who authored a rider to transform his state's Owyhee Canyonlands into an Air Force bombing range; and Idaho Representative Helen Chenoweth, who famously hosted an endangered-sockeye-salmon bake in her district and once donned a T-shirt that read "Earth First!" on the front and "We'll log the other planets later" on the back.
It's converts such as these who have mainstream environmentalists cocking a suspicious eye toward CREA. "The only shade of green these people know is the camouflage they wear while masquerading as environmentalists," states Friends of the Earth's Courtney Cuff. Adds Betsy Loyless, political director for the League of Conservation Voters: "The host committee is filled with blatant anti-environmentalists. This is a serious attempt to mislead the American public." Loyless says that, in her view, the major contributors to CREA's kickoff dinner — including the National Mining Association, the American Forest Paper Association, the Chlorine Chemical Council, and a trio of petroleum conglomerates — amount to a "who's who of anti-environmental extractive industries."
Gingrich, however, insists that he and the members of CREA are after the same pot of gold — a shiny clean planet — that other environmentalists are interested in. They've just chosen to follow a different rainbow. What the nation needs, he argues, is "a conservative, practical, cooperative, high-tech, voluntaristic method of environmentalism." And what CREA can provide, he says, are "solutions not just for America, but for the whole planet."
Boehlert sighs. "Hope," he says, "springs eternal."
Illustration by Jason Schneider