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Unlikely partners unite on the environment


After President Bush's re-election victory in November, many political commentators pondered whether environmentalism was dead because it seemed to have become a narrow, liberal special interest with no appeal in red-state America.

But there is mounting evidence that left-leaning nature lovers can gain significant national political influence by forming an unlikely alliance with conservative middle-class hunters.

What do hunters and environmentalists have in common? They have a similar anger over activities of developers and drillers - business interests that would inalterably change the face of forests and wetlands treasured by people on both sides of the cultural divide.

These shared left-right interests are gaining strength in the West, where partnerships such as the Coalition for the Valle Vidal are fighting to save public forests in the face of the Bush administration's acceleration of drilling on federal land.

The coalition is working to preserve the Valle Vidal, or "valley of life," a section of the Carson National Forest in northeastern New Mexico that is the target of a proposal to dig hundreds of natural gas wells.

While the White House has urged the Forest Service to expedite a decision on a request for permission to drill from the politically active El Paso Corp. of Houston, Republican elk hunters and ranchers have lined up with environmentalists in opposing the proposal.

Roy Hoagland, vice president for environmental protection at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said such cooperation across political lines has begun in Maryland and is likely to grow across the region.

He pointed to the creation last year of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s "flush tax" to fund improvements for sewage treatment plants. The effort to help the bay was backed not only by environmental groups but also by commercial watermen, seafood dealers, restaurant owners and homebuilders who recognized a self-interest in cleaner water, Hoagland said.

"Politics makes for strange bedfellows," he said. "In order for success on environmental issues, you are going to have to see more partnerships, because it's very difficult for any one group to be a driver of change."

Melanie Griffin, director of environmental partnerships for the Sierra Club, said the original impetus for the environmental movement came from hunters. So a return to cooperation with gun owners would be going back to the future.

In a major victory for conservationists, John Muir, a naturalist and nonhunter who founded the Sierra Club, teamed with President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican and avid hunter, to save the Yosemite Valley in 1906.

Such teamwork was common in the early days of the movement, Griffin said. Roosevelt led efforts to preserve 230 million acres as national forests, parks and game preserves. Republican President Richard M. Nixon signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 and created the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the Republican Party broke its bonds with the Roosevelt-style conservation during the 1980s, under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, said Griffin. This was when the mining, energy and timber industries poured money into efforts to achieve political support for the development of public land.

"It was during the Reagan years that they really started to paint environmentalists as a bunch of lefty pinkos, even though polls showed that most Americans consider themselves environmentalists," Griffin said. "Since then, the extreme right wing has turned environmentalism into a bad word, and so now today many hunters prefer to call themselves conservationists. It's a shame."

But Griffin said that the Bush administration's extreme bias in favor of industry is catching the attention of hunters and fishermen and driving them back into their natural alliance with environmentalists.

For example, when the Bush administration weakened protections for wetlands, a group of hunters and anglers met with White House officials last year to urge them to back off. Fishermen also have been incensed by the administration's weak mercury pollution control regulations and proposal to allow more partially treated sewage to flow into waterways.

"Oftentimes, environmentalists and hunters and fishermen are called 'nontraditional allies,' but actually they are traditional allies that are coming back together again now after a few decades of separation," Griffin said.

Jennifer Holland Palmer, Maryland liaison for the National Rifle Association, said that the NRA would like to work with environmental groups to back anti-sprawl legislation or wetlands protection measures. But she said one barrier is a perception by gun owners and greens that the other side is extreme and irrational.

"I think there is a stigma among some environmental groups about working with the NRA, and I think that's a shame because with our grass-roots groups, I think it would be a great partnership," Palmer said.

State Sen. John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and co-chairman of the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus, said that hunters might be inclined to back anti-sprawl measures if environmentalists, in exchange, would be willing to back pro-hunting legislation and distance themselves from animal rights activists.

"Everyone who uses the land has a common interest in preserving the land and preserving natural habitats," said Astle, a former Marine helicopter pilot who just returned from Africa, where he shot a 13-foot Nile crocodile and a bull hippopotamus weighing about a ton. "But I don't think you'll ever see a bridge between the hunting community and the animal rights community."

Brad Heavner, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, an environmental and public health advocacy organization, said it's a common fallacy of hunters to believe environmentalists and animal rights advocates are the same, when many environmentalists believe hunting can be appropriate.

As an increasing amount of open space in Maryland and elsewhere is destroyed, this provides a strong impetus to bridge the divide, he said.

"There has historically been a disconnect between environmental activists from the city and rural voters who want to preserve the land, but are suspicious of the kids from the city," Heavner said. "I think they should realize we have a lot in common, and part of it is our fault, for not spending more time out there."

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