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Why Is Rural America At Loggerheads With The Environmental Movement?

by Theodore Roosevelt IV
Winter 2005

Environmentalists are looking at a hard-pressed rural America and asking "What can you give us?" instead of standing with rural people in their view shed to understand their problems and build strong, durable alliances that are partisanship-proof.

What is stunning in the recent spate of well-considered criticisms of the environmental movement is the lack of attention paid to America's rural communities, those communities most disenfranchised from the environmental movement and the ones who gave George W. Bush both of his presidential victories – victories that most environmentalists did not welcome. One analyst put it this way: "The Republicans won in 2004 by losing the suburbs, while rolling up substantial margins in rural areas. Their standing as a ‘majority party' depends greatly upon their strength in rural communities. ... Bush owes his rural victory and popular majority not only to red states growing redder, but also to rural voters in blue states voting differently than voters in cities and suburbs." While John Kerry carried Pennsylvania, he only won in the cities of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Allentown and some of their surrounding suburbs. The Bush victories, in short, represent a rural/urban divide that is perhaps more marked than at any other time in our history.

Many commentators accurately observed that the important issues in Bush country were moral values and leadership in the war on terror. Rarely is the environment mentioned. I believe, however, that the environment contributed to the president's win, particularly in the public lands–dominated intermountain West, as well as in Alaska and the resource-dependent communities of the Pacific Northwest and South. Yet, poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans, despite the blue/red divide, want a healthy natural environment. So how can this be?

The difference lies in how we get there. Even in red states, voters will support pro-environment candidates on the local and state levels. For example, while President Bush won every county but five in Montana, Democrat Brian Schweitzer still managed to take home the gubernatorial win on a strong environmental platform. For Montana voters, it is abundantly obvious: Governor Schweitzer will have to achieve his environmental goals by excavating consensus from the ground up, rather than by imposing policy from the top down, which is generated by distant interest groups and bureaucracies – national environmental NGOs or federal agencies, those regarded as "outsiders."

Rural Americans feel that the national environmental movement does not understand and is not sympathetic to their economic dependence on natural resources, and is furthermore dismissive and condescending toward their views, lifestyles and economic hardships. Unfortunately, they base this view on a history of environmental callousness toward their communities, marked by national campaigns that by their lights demonize rural people, overlook issues of social justice, and utilize half-truths and misinformation. This complaint is echoed in Mac Chapin's article "A Challenge to Conservationists" in World Watch magazine. Chapin chronicles a similar outcry of injustice from indigenous people in developing countries about what they consider the "abusive" treatment of many international environmental groups.

Let me share one example from the ranching community along these lines, an example that haunts me as both a wilderness and ranching advocate. Years ago, when it was suggested that part of a national forest in Wyoming, where cattle grazing had occurred for over 80 years, should be given wilderness designation, the local ranching community was hostile. They were given assurances, however, that their nonintrusive management styles on those allotments would be allowed to continue, since they fell well within the parameters of the Congressional Grazing Guidelines. Leaders among the ranchers agreed to the proposal and convinced their peers to follow suit in order to "protect a pretty place." The support of the ranchers was essential for the passage of the necessary congressional legislation. Shortly thereafter, local wilderness groups had second thoughts and tried to force the ranchers off the allotments by pressuring the Forest Service to institute a stricter interpretation than a reasonable reading of the Congressional Grazing Guidelines allowed. The ranchers felt betrayed. Businessmen and -women accustomed to closing deals with a handshake felt that environmentalists were not honorable. Not only would it be impossible today to get another wilderness designation in that part of Wyoming, but these unfortunate experiences have hardened ranchers against environmentalists.

About the Author
Theodore Roosevelt IV, the great grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, is an investment banker on Wall Street, a hunter, rancher and active conservationist. He serves on the boards of the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, The World Resources Institute, The William Ruckelshaus Institute of the Environment and Natural Resources, Trout Unlimited and The Wilderness Society. He is currently trying to stabilize the economic future of America's ranching community.