GOP rides roughshod over its once famous environmental legacy; Today's GOP keeps bruising the environment because it is paid to. Many legislative riders are goods delivered to generous special interests.


THE EARTH and the current Republican Party just can't seem to get along. The GOP has its long knives out again for the environment, loading 13 appropriations bills with 58 riders that, like a street gang on a tear, would vandalize the national neighborhood.

Why does the party keep doing this stuff? Republicans virtually invented conservation under President Theodore Roosevelt and threw in with modern environmental protection under President Richard Nixon.

This is an honorable tradition -- and an admired one. There are few settled matters in America's volatile politics, but environmental protection, in general if not in every detail, is one. We like it.

Republicans paid a penalty in the polls when President Ronald Ronald Reagan's impatience with trees and indulgence for sundry toxins began to unnerve voters. And Newt Gingrich's big Contract With America started losing steam when the public caught on that, in part, it was cover for renewed attacks on ecological health.

Today's GOP keeps bruising the environment because it is paid to. Many legislative riders are goods delivered to generous special interests: ranchers, the oil industry, timber.

But the party keeps at it as well because many Republicans have talked themselves into an ideological conviction that humankind's stewardship of the planet has little or no proper business taking political form. Let the market decide what lives or dies, prospers or wanes. The destruction of species and the degradation of the biosphere pale as evils compared with any government intrusion on their behalf.

So here are proposals to extend destructive grazing on public land, kill the creation of a wildlife refuge on the Grand Kankakee River in Illinois, limit the U.S. ability to study and prepare for global climate changes, prevent restoration of Glen Canyon in Utah, boost subsidies for timbering in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, undermine wetlands protection with developer-friendly appeals, block funding for energy conservation. And more. And still more.

Democrats are not innocent of environmental hooliganism, especially when some home-district fat cat puts out a contract on nature, but Republicans have become specialists at this sort of marauding in recent years, successfully daring President Clinton to veto crucial government funding just to unhorse usually obscure riders.

There are signs the president, with only a so-so environmental record himself, may be less accommodating this time. The GOP sponsors are being even more piggy than usual, and their over-reaching gives the administration a chance to pick a fight that would help Vice President Al Gore renew his environmentalist credentials.

There were arguments over particulars, but a broad bipartisan consensus for environmental activism held for 20 years, until the GOP began suspecting that any environmentalism was environmental extremism. The party's riders these days look more like Cossacks than cowboys.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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