Excerpt from Smoking Them Out

The Great Divide

Everywhere political leaders go they are plagued by questions, complaints and frustrations about environmental laws. Pollsters assure us that environmental protection remains popular in every part of the country. Yet invariably, at every campaign stop in the West, politicians hear about citizens’ frustrations with such legislation, especially the Endangered Species Act, which capriciously threatens to limit access to public lands, and even the use of private property, without any proof that such action actually restores the numbers of endangered species. One cannot escape the conclusion that somewhere, just barely beneath the political radar screen, there is a growing mistrust of the entire environmental movement.

These issues, especially for many people in the West (because government owns so much of the land), has evolved into a great divide, almost a holy war, between people with completely different views of the same situation.

I have known many of the leaders of the major environmental organizations, at the state and national level, for a long time. They are not stupid. It is simply not possible for that many credible leaders to be completely out of touch with reality. They all drive cars, live in wood houses, buy reams of paper, use electricity and eat agricultural products. Further, most are true believers convinced their approach is right for the environment, not sinister hypocrites with a secret plan to repeal the Bill of Rights.
Similarly, I have known most of the leaders of the private property rights groups, and many people involved in multiple uses of public lands: oil and gas executives, cattlemen and woolgrowers, loggers, miners, off-road vehicle groups, hunters and anglers, the ski industry and the chambers of commerce. The traditional us-against-them picture doesn’t fit there either. These people do not hate the environment. Their very livelihood depends upon good stewardship of the land and especially upon sustainability of the resources. Some of them talk with a nearly religious fervor about the beauty of the land they call home, and most are avid outdoorsmen. Like environmental leaders, they are also true believers who think they are helping create a better world, not fat robber barons intent on bulldozing the wilderness for bloated windfall profits.

How could this debate have become such a ferocious good-bad-ugly argument among people in the same community, who share so many common values and dreams, and profess such a universal love of the natural world? Not that this is brand new—the conservation ethic has always been somewhat divisive. President Theodore Roosevelt did not have unanimous support for creation of the national park system or the national forests. These issues are not black-and-white, right-or-wrong, yes-or-no, up-or-down issues. This bitter pitting of one interest against another, the accusations and epithets hurled in recent years at both sides, by both sides, and the constant lawsuits, have polarized into factions who call each other “eco-terrorists” and “enviro-nazis” or “wilderness rapists” and “plunderers.” The language is different now.

How did Americans allow the lofty goals of conservation to become so polarized as to prevent us from doing what is right for the environment? Understanding how the original conservation movement, truly motivated to protect the environment and restore wildlife, descended into this extreme state requires a review of how the environmental movement evolved.

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