Why the NRA is the Key to Protecting the Environment


Through a legislative twist of fate, the very first items on the agenda when the Senate reopened this week were Federal Migratory Bird Hunting Stamps, better known to their fans as duck stamps. 

But before the media begins making weak jokes about lame-duck Congressmen, the legislation deserves a closer look. The Sportsmen's Act of 2012, as the omnibus bill containing the stamp provisions is known, will not only authorize a price increase for avian memorabilia. It will also support hunters, fishermen, and outdoor enthusiasts and, through the sale of the duck stamps, raise badly needed funds to protect wildlife habitats. And it's a rare chance for an increasingly marginalized environmental movement to build badly needed alliances with middle America; alliances that will help it achieve its broader goals in the years ahead.

A bit of background. America's national parks and other protected lands preserve hundreds of millions of acres of public property. But a solid chunk of these areas — around 35 million acres — lack public access points, making them nearly impossible to visit. The bill, sponsored by Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D), would open up these forests, lakes, and prairies to tens of millions of Americans, creating new space for recreation and outdoor education. It would also reauthorize important programs like the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that protect aquatic habitats and wetlands. Meanwhile, by raising the prices of the bird stamps, which have remained unchanged since 1991, the bill will raise millions of additional dollars for these and other conservation efforts.

The NRA has endorsed Tester's bill because it protects the rights of hunters on federal lands. So have virtually all the national hunting and fishing associations and the Nature Conservancy, which recognize the importance of the bill's protective measures. At a time of fiscal constraint, new sources of revenue for environmental protection are hard to find. Noticeably absent from the list of supporters, however, are some of the political powerhouses of the environmental movement — groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resource Defense Council, and the Sierra Club.

So far, these groups haven't taken a public position on the bill, but they are no doubt hesitant to advocate for legislation that explicitly encourages hunting and fishing. This hesitation is understandable. The missions of most green groups, after all, tend toward protecting the planet, not shooting its animal citizens. But by withholding their support, organizations like EDF and NRDC are missing an opportunity to mend a historical break in the environmental movement, one that hurts the cause by limiting environmentalism's public appeal.

That break can be traced back to the middle of the last century. In the first half of the 20th century and before, leading conservationists were almost universally hunters. Most prominent, of course, was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican president, world-class big-game hunter and founder of the American National Park system. Roosevelt's love of hunting was one factor that drove him to promote a philosophy of natural resource management that came to be known as "wise use," which stood for the husbanding of timber, water, and wildlife populations, giving birth to the new science of wildlife management. Aldo Leopold, an early ecologist and perhaps the most gifted environmental writer of the 20th century, helped develop the practice of wildlife management. Like Roosevelt, Leopold combined his affection for nature with a love of the rifle and the rod.

But Leopold also served as inspiration to revolutionary wilderness advocates who believed that nature — or at least parts of nature — should be left alone completely. In this view, which grew stronger over the 1960s and 1970s, nature was sacred and inviolate. Such ideas took added strength from the increasing social recognition of endangered species. For the first time in human history, the killing of animals took on dark overtones. Over time, as environmentalism became identified with East Coast cultural elites, hunting became a political and social marker.

The loser in all of this has been the environment itself. Hunters and fishermen are an extremely well-organized political constituency. But mainstream environmentalism has lost touch with them — and with mainstream America in general. Polls show a marked decline in sympathy among the American public for the environmental movement, and not coincidentally, a decline in their concern for the environment itself. Given these facts, the environmental movement should be full-throated in their support of increased access to public lands — especially when combined with wetlands preservation and the like. Increasingly seen as a niche special interest, the bill is an opportunity for environmentalists to embrace a big-tent approach and find solidarity with conservative sportsmen. Gun-toting environmentalists are rare today, but they don't have to be forever; the Sportsmen's Act is one way to expand their numbers and provide badly needed financial and legislative support for habitat preservation — and strengthen the environmental movement in the process.