Outside magazine, May 1995
"If at some point in the next 50,000 years the Earth tilts, as it will...that slight tilt will change totally the ecosystems [that environmentalists] are prepared to spend endless quantities to save. The Sahara may well once again bloom...and you may have new deserts in areas that are now wet. And that's the nature of history over time." --Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, addressing business leaders in Washington, D.C., earlier this year
For good reason, environmentalists have been confused by the man called Newt. The knee-jerk postelection assessment saw him as automatic bad news--James Watt in a Phil Donahue fright wig. But a look at the record is a bit surprising. A Sierra Club member from 1984 to 1990, Newt opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fought dam projects, and stumped for a stronger Clean Air Act. Once he even tremblingly admitted to an aide, "I would have a hard time explaining to my daughters if elephants went extinct and I hadn't done anything to prevent it." Such hopeful blips made greens imagine that the new Speaker might play against type. But the pall began descending when Newt's "earth tilt" speech endorsed the idea that world-wracking development is in keeping with nature's long-term script. Soon after, Newt advanced a freeze on environmental regulations and started chucking verbal cluster bombs at the Environmental Protection Agency.
So what happened? Newtian advancement. Longtime Newt scholars point out that environmentalism paid off early in his career, but during his scrabble to the top he handed out chits to many of the same brownfellas who are now wailing about pernicious federal interference. Still, there is a glimmer of hope, because the man is unpredictable. As the story unfolds, all agree that Newt, a rare amphibian who has mutated grotesquely in the CO2-enriched habitat of Capitol Hill, will evolve in ways that are fascinating and terrible to behold. Here's a once-and-future analysis of an emerging life form.
THE TADPOLE YEARS
Eager to come off as a big-picture Republican with a green eyeshade, Newt told one Georgia lobbyist that he considered acid rain to be "the next most important issue" after ending South African apartheid. He defied GOP chieftains by voting for the Alaska Lands Act and was an early critic of James Watt. Following the 1984 publication of his policy tome, Window of Opportunity, Newt told the conservation chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club: "My next book is going to be about a new Republican environmental agenda."
THE NEW NEWT
As for the immediate rough and tumble, the best hope is that Newt's even crabbier conservative brethren will annoy him enough to bring out his cuddly side. A pest to watch is a man whom Newt openly dislikes: Representative Don Young of Alaska, the strident new chairman of the House Resources Committee, who calls environmentalists "waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating intellectual bunch of idiots." The high-road hope is that Newt will corral Young's ambitions to reopen the Arctic oil-exploration issue because he wants to prove he can still be environmentally sensitive. The low-road hope is that he'll simply squash the guy for fun.
Another major test will begin if the Endangered Species Act comes to the House floor for its long-delayed renewal this summer. Already, some conservative lobbyists have blasted Newt for linking up in the last Congress with Representative Gerry Studds, a despised liberal from Massachusetts, on a failed bill that, contrary to Newt's general development pattern, would have strengthened the act. (A recent memo from Myron Ebell, an anti-ESA lobbyist with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, insolently mused: "We must find better spokesmen than Newt.") Among the tantalizing wild cards are Newt's elephant-loving daughters. Will the gals let daddy rest easy if bear cubs and salmon fry are tormented? At press time, Newt's 1995 position was inscrutable. His main public utterance on the issue since becoming Speaker was big-picture and typically vague: He suggested "privatizing" species protection by giving the job to--who else?--zoos.
Ned Martel frequently writes about environmental issues for Outside.