2014 Midterms: What they mean, and don’t mean, for conservation

November 6, 2014

Election Day 2014 is in the history books and it’s a logical time to take stock. Check these items in particular: which political forces can conservationists hope to influence, and which are beyond their control?

First, the 2014 Midterms were clearly not about conservation. They were a typical American voter reaction to a second-term president, and a vote of dissatisfaction over an economy that seems to be rebounding on paper with no corresponding benefit for the average working family.

The party of incumbent presidents tends to lose midterm elections and lose them by larger margins in their second term. This year, that meant the Republican Party takes control of both the House and Senate. The ball is in their court.

Second, conservation remains a fundamental shared value of Americans, coast to coast. Americans want clean water, clean air and places to enjoy the Great Outdoors. Regardless of political affiliation, they see a healthy environment as part of, not a threat to, good jobs and a robust economy. This is actually a unifying theme in a very divided time. Trust for Public Land’s President Will Rogers sums it up nicely in this election recap, highlighting how American “Voters approved 35 local and statewide measures, generating a record $13 billion in funding for conservation purposes.”

Yet the fact remains that Beltway politics are more polarized and bitterly partisan today than they have been in decades. Cooperation is perceived as a show of weakness. Ear-splitting rhetoric drowns out any notes played in a more reasonable pitch.

An insightful commentary in the New York Times this week explains how the American people are not divided as starkly along party lines as our representatives in Washington D.C.  Political ideologues of both sides tend to over-estimate the gulf between Americans. Meanwhile, politicians exploit those differences.

Realistically, we have a 15-month window of opportunity to get things done before the 2016 Presidential Election starts sucking the oxygen from the room. When it comes to conservation, time is always the enemy.

Some big questions stand before people working to conserve our nation’s natural resources – and before those people just elected to office.

Can conservationists build the kind of alliances, reaching across party, cultural and ideological barriers, to demonstrate a broad public demand for change?

Meanwhile, are there political leaders, of any party or ideological stripe, ready to put campaign rhetoric aside and take the risk of success?

Conservationists have some influence over the first question. Politicians – and the voters who elect them – must answer the second.

Ben Long and John Lamson

Photo: Ben Long and son, Aidan, on the Wild & Scenic Flathead River in their home state of Montana.