Young Conservatives Are Crucial to the Future of Conservation
Republicans in Congress on the fence about conservation legislation take the views of their conservative constituents seriously.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Republican politicians don’t enjoy a great reputation among advocates of conservation and environmental policy.
Some of this reputation is warranted. Of the 107 U.S. House members who voted against the last major piece of conservation legislation, the Great American Outdoors Act, all but three were Republican. In the Senate, 25 of 53 Republicans voted against the bill while no Democrat voted against it.
But there’s another way to look at these numbers. Benji Backer of the American Conservation Coalition believes we should be paying more attention to the Republican “yes” votes than their colleagues’ “no” votes.
“Four or five years ago, you would not have seen 80-plus Republicans in the House and dozens of Republicans in the Senate vote yes on that piece of legislation,” he said. “Despite what the media often shows, there’s an immense bipartisanship happening on conservation and the environment.”
Backer founded the ACC in 2017, institutionalizing a trend among conservatives—especially young conservatives—of supporting conservation policies. Their conservation philosophy differs from that of their left-leaning counterparts, but conservatives’ growing support for conservation policy may signal increased cooperation in efforts to preserve land, ecosystems, and natural resources.
Gabriella Hoffman is a right-leaning journalist and marketing consultant. On her podcast and in op-eds for Townhall, she calls on conservatives to become more conservation-minded.
“There is an opportunity in the Republican Party to tackle these issues. Some lawmakers do this really well, others don’t, but I think you’re going to see more [support for conservation issues],” Hoffman said.
Hoffman believes land, including public land, can have multiple uses, capable of serving both business and sportsmen’s interests. At the same time, she said, those interests cannot supersede care for and stewardship of the environment. Conservationists differ from “preservationists” in their pursuit of this balance, she added. Preservationists believe the natural world should remain as untouched as possible. They doubt humans can responsibly use the land, and they’d rather prohibit both sportsmen and businesses from utilizing natural resources.
Both Hoffman and Backer stressed that conservationists and preservationists don’t fall along neat political lines. But, in general, multiple-use conservation policies resonate more with conservatives, and these policies will get more right-wing folks on board with environmental protection issues.
“Conservatives want all voices at the table,” Backer said. “Have local governments involved, state governments, farmers and ranchers and the sportsman’s community—try to get as many people involved in these conversations as possible so we can find the best solution.”
Evan Hafer, founder of the conservative-leaning Black Rifle Coffee Company (BRCC), echoed Backer’s approach.
“I don’t think the correct stewardship is being hands-off at this point and just letting nature do what it does,” he said. “We have to be able to utilize the ground in an environmentally sound and economically sustainable way.”
BRCC is a vocal supporter of conservation groups, and they’ve donated to the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to ensure, as Hafer says, that the land he’s hunted on since he was a kid remains healthy for his children and grandchildren.
Protecting access to natural resources is a prerequisite for another aspect of conservative conservation: self-reliance.
“Individualism, self-reliance, providing for yourself and providing for your family has been an overarching theme of conservatism,” Hoffman said.
Providing for self and family is partly what motivated Hafer to involve his company in conservation initiatives that protect hunting land and game species.
“It’s about understanding where my food comes from and being responsible for the food that I put on my family’s plate,” Hafer said. “If I could grow 100 percent of my food and kill 100 percent of my animals, I would.”
“It’s really difficult to figure out where that Big Mac comes from,” he continued. “But when I put an arrow through the heart of a whitetail, I know exactly where that animal comes from, and my family knows how much work it took for me to get that.”
Hoffman pointed to a 2012 survey from the National Wildlife Federation that found 42 percent of hunters and anglers surveyed were Republican while only 18 percent were Democrat (32 percent were independent). In terms of ideology, 50 percent said they were conservative. A 2018 poll from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers suggests a more even partisan split.
Conservative conservationists also tend to emphasize localism. Localists promote care for the immediate environment and prioritize local and state control over federal mandates.
Hoffman said that in some cases, state governments are best equipped to handle environmental dilemmas while working in concert with the federal government.
“In areas where the government is ill-equipped or unable to tackle an issue, states, localities, and individuals can jump in to rectify problems and help ensure access,” she said.
She pointed specifically to issues like managing delisted, recovered species and incentivizing landowners to become conservation stakeholders. As an example of federal overreach, she cited the case of grizzly-bear-recovery efforts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, in which federal regulations created perverse incentives that hindered the recovery process. Allowing state agencies to have a seat at the table can help fill in the blind spots of federal regulators, she said.
Hoffman and Backer both noted that the environmental movement has lost the support of some conservatives by proposing large-scale, one-size-fits-all solutions implemented by the federal government.
However, “once conservatives realize there is a market-based or limited-government solution, or a solution that can work for their rural, local communities, they feel like they can actually have a stake in the environmental discussion,” Backer said.
Hafer prioritizes a localist conservation ethic in his business. He argued that business owners owe it to their families and communities to protect the environment—and that the government doesn’t always have the best solutions.
When he explains his rationale for installing afterburners to burn off the extra smoke in his roaster in Salt Lake City, he doesn’t mention climate change or rising sea levels. Instead, he talks about air quality and his kids, and how the valley tends to trap smoke from the city.
“When I go home and play with my kids, I have to look and them and say, ‘Do I spend the money to burn the extra smoke off so that I’m not contributing to the problem?’ The answer is yes,” he said.
Backer told me that the Great American Outdoors Act passed in part due to the lobbying efforts of young conservative activists.
“We were told by dozens of members of Congress that we were the reason they voted yes,” he said.
This is in part because Republican members of Congress who are on the fence about conservation and environmental legislation take the opinions of their conservative constituents seriously.
“Most Republicans in the House and Senate simply want to hear from their own voters on these issues,” he said. “This isn’t the NRA going to Nancy Pelosi’s office. This is a conservative going to a conservative, and I think there’s a lot of power in that on an issue that hasn’t traditionally been that way.”
If Backer is right, conservative hunters, anglers, and conservationists could play a huge role in the next large piece of conservation legislation: the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA).
Right now, Republicans comprise 37 of the 152 sponsors in the House, and 16 of the 31 sponsors in the Senate. Even as Republicans balk at other large spending bills, there is significant support among the GOP for this landmark piece of conservation legislation that would help fund thousands of state conservation projects.
Jordan Sillars is a freelance writer covering the outdoors, firearms, and conservation, and a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at Baylor University, where he studies the intersection of literature and the environment.