When I was in my teen years in the late 1960s, college age Vietnam War protesters were featured nightly on the TV news, chanting of “Make love, not war!” The local cops just as routinely dragged them off to jail before the cameras.
Years later, when I was a Congressional staffer, I frequently observed partisans choosing between legislative peace or war, between negotiating an imperfect compromise deal on the one-hand or blowing up the process over a matter of “principle” on the other hand. Intriguingly, the interest groups on both ends of the political spectrum that were most frequently eager to embrace “victory or death” were the national organizations based in Washington DC. This was especially true, it seemed, in environmental policy debates. Their favorite arena was the federal courts. The interest groups back home, on the other hand, were usually much more interested in problem-solving than in counting coups.
I worked for a very gracious and equally conservative republican, Senator Chic Hecht (R-NV). As you might expect, the environmental community were not our regular supporters. However, I found that even on the toughest environmental issues I could usually find some common ground with the local Nevada chapters of the National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, and even the Sierra Club. Like their counterparts on the opposite side of many issues, the Nevada Mining Association, Nevada Farm Bureau, and Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, there was an instinctive sense that making some progress for Nevada where they could find areas of mutual agreement was better than making no progress at all. They all had to live in Nevada, after all, and not infrequently run into each other in the supermarket or at their kid’s high school football games and so faced a lot of social pressure to find a modus vivendi. The national groups, liberal and conservative, rarely showed that inclination.
Fast forwarding to the present day, I recently became aware of a recent letter to the industry-oriented Western Energy Alliance (WEA) from four national environmental organizations over the prospective listing of the greater sage grouse (GrSG) under the Endangered Species Act. The bird is caught in an ecological trap involving invasive cheat grass and associated heightened risk of habitat loss from wildland fire. Listing the bird could imperil much economic activity across the West. Instead of scorched earth litigation, the conservation groups seem to be offering their opposites an olive branch. They wrote, “While we clearly do not agree on everything, it seems we find common ground in seeking federal and state-level plans that strike a balance between needed energy development and lasting conservation of GrSG and its habitat in a concerted effort to prevent the need to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act.”
This is an encouraging overture. A cynic might argue that the letter was a defensive public relations move prompted by an apparently effective WEA advertising campaign portraying the enviros as trying to destroy the economy of the West through ESA litigation. Or, there might be a “good cop, bad cop” phenomenon going on here, with the far left assuredly remaining in their role as litigation warriors. Regardless of its motivation, I am encouraged both by the letter’s acknowledgment of the oil and gas “energy development” as a legitimate public purpose, and by its commitment to find mutually beneficial solutions to the GrSG’s conservation challenges outside of an ESA listing. Let’s hope the two sides find a path forward that takes on the cheat grass, conserves the bird, avoids an ESA listing, creates jobs in the West, and provides supplies of energy for the rest of us. It is never too late to make conservation, not litigation.