Americans Voted Overwhelmingly to Protect Wild Places

The results from Tuesday's elections prove that the majority of people in this country revere our public lands. Politicians, listen up.

Montana voters elected senate Democrat Jon Tester to a third term on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)
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On Tuesday, voters affirmed their commitment to public land and conservation in an era of multifaceted attacks on wilderness, wildlife, national monuments, critical habitat, and clean air and water.

From Montana to Minnesota, to states as far from the West as Connecticut and Georgia, voters turned out in decisive numbers to support pro-public-land candidates and to oppose the pro-industry favoritism of President Trump and interior secretary Ryan Zinke. Equally noteworthy, several races wound up with Republicans and Democrats toeing the same line of public-lands support—lending credibility to the idea that conservation issues offer a rare space for politicians and voters from both parties to meet in the middle. “You look at the big picture and candidates in swing states realized that pro-public-lands stances are a beneficial place to go,” says Aaron Weiss of the Denver-based nonprofit Center for Western Priorities. “It’s one of the last big issues that really speaks to folks in both parties.”

“Overall, the observance is that conservation issues were on the ballot across the country,” says Jenny Rowland of the Center for American Progress, “and we’re seeing that voters are rejecting the Zinke- and Trump-branded attacks on parks, the oceans, and national monuments.” All told, the Center for American Progress reports that public lands and environmental issues played decisive roles in at least 14 races.

“My hope was that public lands would become a top-tier issue and not something we only care about after we have a roof on our head and pay for health care,” says Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, based in Missoula, Montana. “That was my hope, but I didn’t think it would play this well in places like Minnesota.” Tawney says he was particularly encouraged to see Erik Paulsen, a Republican from Hennepin County, Minnesota, which includes parts of the Minneapolis suburbs, launch his campaign with a video of himself paddling a canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). In the ad, Paulsen pledges to protect the Boundary Waters from a proposed copper-nickel mining project, which Trump and Zinke have sought to facilitate, and which conservationists and environmentalists claim poses an existential threat to one of the most unique freshwater ecosystems in North America. “When President Trump tried to take away important environmental protections for the Boundary Waters, I said no way,” Paulsen says in the ad while standing on the reedy shores of a Minnesota lake. “I’ll stand up to my party or President Trump to protect Minnesota.”

Paulsen lost to Democrat Dean Phillips, who also opposes mining near the Boundary Waters, but for Tawney, the fact that both candidates stepped up for the BWCA is noteworthy. In Tawney’s home state of Montana, a nail-biter of a race between Republican state auditor Matt Rosendale and incumbent Democratic senator Jon Tester, the legitimacy of each of the candidates’ claims to support public lands and conservation was under heavy scrutiny. Rosendale had difficulty escaping the long shadow of his formerly enthusiastic support for the sale and transfer of public land, which he expressed with unflinching conviction back in 2014 when he ran against Zinke in the Republican congressional primary. He sought to recant that position throughout 2018. Tester, who has long been considered a champion of public lands and conservation, helped craft the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which passed in 2014 and expanded the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area by 67,000 acres. This year he worked across the aisle to get his Montana Republican colleagues senator Steve Daines and congressman Greg Gianforte to support a bill to withdraw 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land near Yellowstone National Park from the mineral leasing program.

Rosendale lost despite Trump visiting Montana four times in recent months, often on what seemed like a personal mission to derail Tester. “Jon Tester successfully turned public lands and public-lands access into a third rail for Republicans,” Weiss says, explaining how a wave of land-transfer bills failed at the level of state legislatures across the West back in 2015, including in Montana, at the height of the land-transfer movement. Tester seized on that moment to cement enduring support for public lands. “The more extreme folks in the state are not making it to the federal level,” says Weiss. “They have to run to the middle on public lands and support for public access.” 

Nevada senator Dean Heller, the incumbent Republican who applauded Zinke’s controversial review of national monuments last year and has proposed legislation to eliminate wilderness study areas, lost to Democrat Jacky Rosen, who stuck up for monuments and made public lands a central part of her campaign. In New Mexico, senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who has also defended national monuments and last year helped to open access to the Sabinoso Wilderness Area, easily defeated his Republican opponent, Mark Rich, who has called for Bureau of Land Management land to be transferred to the states and then privatized. 

Ballot initiatives also spoke to the muscle of a pro-public-lands and public-waters constituency. In Connecticut, an initiative to make it harder to sell state lands passed by 84.5 percent. After a scandal last year involving Zinke’s decision to exempt Florida from the Interior Department’s nationwide offshore drilling expansion, following a request from governor Rick Scott (whose Senate race against incumbent Bill Nelson, a Democrat, may be headed for a recount), Floridians voted to ban offshore drilling. Georgians voted by a four-to-one margin to divert 80 percent of sales-tax revenue from sporting-goods stores into a state-run conservation fund. (Of course, the news wasn’t all good.)

With an empowered public-lands caucus in the House and an imminent changeover of chairmanships on vital committees like the House Natural Resources Committee, conservationists and environmentalists are hopeful that popular bipartisan legislation, like a bill to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, will finally become law. Since 2015, the House Natural Resources Committee has been chaired by land-transfer proponent Rob Bishop of Utah, a Republican who has also sought to undermine the Endangered Species Act and wilderness protections. Ranking member Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, will likely chair the committee starting next year. Beyond the LWCF, public-lands advocates are hoping Congress will move forward with pending legislation to fund wildlife protection and habitat enhancement, parks maintenance, and conservation components of the farm bill.

Grijalva is pledging to use the committee’s investigate powers to investigate Zinke and other appointees who he calls “ethically challenged.” “They're going to be held accountable, and if they don’t want to participate in that accountability, then we have other legal recourses to make them do that,” Grijalva says. “And I think we are expected to do that and we need to do that.”

Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, based in Washington, D.C., says he’s excited to work with a House that would focus on important bipartisan conservation legislation. “We’re not going to see all these extreme anti-public-land, anti-wildlife bills coming out of the House,” Fosburgh says, referring to unviable legislation that has come out of the Natural Resources Committee under Bishop’s leadership, including bills to sell millions of acres of public land, eliminate the land-management agencies’ law-enforcement arms, and allow bicycles and other wheeled vehicles into wilderness areas. “Now we will not have to spend half our time playing defense.”

Fosburgh is hopeful that the new House membership will work to divert more funds to the Conservation Reserve Program in the ongoing farm-bill negotiations. CRP, managed by the Department of Agriculture, pays farmers to take land out of production and set it aside as wildlife habitat. He said that low commodities prices for crops like soybeans may help garner support for CRP from Republicans in the Midwest who are seeking relief for their constituents.

One of the most significant public-lands moments in the election cycle actually happened last spring, when lieutenant governor Brad Little defeated congressman Raul Labrador in Idaho’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Labrador, a Tea Party member who is considered to be far right of center on public-lands issues, wrote an op-ed in 2016 claiming that the Bundys’ armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was “civil disobedience.” In the same op-ed, Labrador argued for pilot projects that would test local control of land management on national forest lands. Idahoans rejected Labrador. So when Democrat Paulette Jordan and Little faced off on Tuesday, voters had a choice between two politicians who were both appealing to the middle on public lands.

“It feels like we’ve managed to shift the ground on this stuff, so that if public land is a wedge issue, it’s a wedge within the Republican Party and not within the broader electorate,” says Weiss. “And we see that as victory.”

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