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.

The good news is that most of the national environmental organizations acknowledge that they are not well-liked in rural America; this acknowledgement is an important first step. Many of the leaders in the environmental movement to whom I have spoken, however, feel that the problem lies with rural communities, that they don't, in their words, "self-identify" as environmentalists. In my experience, rural communities would find this infuriating and extremely condescending; they regard themselves as first order stewards, despite the fact that they receive little recognition for the ecological services they provide without remuneration. But environmental NGOs have concluded that all they have to do in response is massage their message: change "who the messengers are" and adjust their language camouflage, while continuing on-the-ground policies and national campaigns that alienate rural constituents.

A good example of this is the "voluntary grazing buyout" proposal. Despite the tag of being "voluntary," it is widely rejected by the ranching community because it sends the message that public lands grazing is categorically undesirable. The advocates for the buyout program overlook the following:

  • Many of those who depend on public lands grazing are family ranchers such as the four-centuries-old subsistence Hispanic ranchers in America's Southwest, for whom ranching is of profound cultural, as well as economic, significance.
  • One hundred million acres of prime private home-range lands, key to fisheries health and biodiversity abundance, are tied to federal leases and likely to be sold if the leases are lost.
  • Scientific studies comparing biodiversity on ranches, wildlife refuges and subdivisions found that ranches match the species counts of wildlife refuges (but with fewer invasive weeds) and outperform "ranchettes."
  • Ranching represents one of the oldest herding cultures on the planet and is part of our cultural diversity and our national strength.
  • Ranchers were the leaders in range reform, hastening the Taylor Grazing Act into passage; most of the damage done to the range happened in the heyday of unregulated grazing at the beginning of the 20th century; and, finally, much of the range, now lacking native grazers, must depend on well-regulated grazing for its health and vitality.

But, for the sake of this "voluntary grazing buyout" proposal – a highly dubious public program in terms of its ecological benefits and one whose costs are so enormous it is unlikely to ever be funded – environmentalists have generated enormous ill will, again losing much in the way of social capital and trust.

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. When communities depend on a natural resource for their survival, a resource in which the nation also has a stake and intends to assert its interests, then the nation must assume a concomitant responsibility, a duty, to the local community. This principle is established in one of our most essential environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act, though scant reference is ever made to that aspect of it.

Not only are our private landowners key to species preservation (as 60 percent of threatened species are found principally on these lands, with 90 percent spending some part of their life cycle there), they hold the political keys to the immediate future of environmental policy. Our warfare over an inadequate public lands base (with federal budget constraints not likely to yield any further land acquisitions) is poisoning the well and is generally counterproductive. Battles we may always have with us, but over the past decade we have all demonstrated a notable preference for the "nuclear option." Recently, an environmental activist who advocates raising the temperature on pressure politics said to me, "I feel that people are like animals. They only respond to pressure." I disagree. We need to have a more optimistic and congenial view of humankind if we expect to have broad political appeal.

If environmentalists agree that many of the people's elected representatives from the conservative wing of the Republican Party have not been good for environmental policy, then I would urge that we pay better and more respectful attention to the party's base: the concerns of rural communities and the reasons that they feel alienated from the environmental movement. They may still vote for Republicans on national security and moral values issues, but they might then also insist that their representatives vote for the environment – when a vote for the environment is also a vote for their communities.

It is time for the environmental community to take a hard, critical look at ourselves with regard to our treatment of rural people and our resultant standing in those communities. This is important, not just from a political perspective, but from an ecological and humanistic one. If we continue our business-as-usual approach or pursue inauthentic remedies, we will continue to alienate a large, vulnerable and critical sector of the American electorate.

À propos de l'auteur

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.