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The Single-issue Voter: A birder’s look at Jon Huntsman (R)

September 16, 2011
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It’s that time again. As civic-minded individuals do, I’m oft interested in how the platforms of those running for president affect my life, that’s as a birder naturally. With so many candidates and elections still more than a year off I decided to do the work so you, dear reader(s), don’t have to. So here’s what I hope will be a regular look as those who would be birder-in-chief. Starting with the long-shots and working my way up so that you all will be prepared when the time comes to cast your ballot. This is the first of The Drinking Bird’s however many parts it takes series.

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In you would, step over here to my way-back machine for a second.  Back in the day – and by that I mean before the 80s- the ethos of conservationism was part of the platforms of both major American political parties.  Now I realize that statement may blow the minds of those of you who pay attention to politics in this day and age, but it’s true.  There used to be this feeling, let’s call it pride, in the hearts of nearly every American when they considered the bounty of our expansive public lands.  After all, the idea of the self-reliant cowboy riding off into the unspoiled hinterlands is such a persistent part of the American sense of societal self that even though in the 21st Century we don’t really have cowboys anymore, or hinterlands for that matter, we’re occasionally drawn to the slack-jawed windblown politician whose preening machismo makes us forget about the fact that pretty much every political candidate comes from the class of Ivy League Americans what wouldn’t know a lasso from a lollipop.

What we’re faced with now is a far cry from political figures like birder president Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican (though he wouldn’t recognize this modern version of the party) who preserved massive swaths of the west.  Like FDR, a Democrat who, with the Civilian Conservation Corps, pulled the nation out of the Great Depression in part by putting people to work making the wilderness accessible for all.  Like Richard Nixon who, for all his paranoid scheming and nutty conspiracies, had the political will to sign three of the most amazing and far-sighted pieces of legislation in the nation’s history; the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

What I mean is that this conservation ethos used to transcend political parties, and I stand here disappointed because neither has seen fit to really take up the mantle again.  The Republican Party is so bought and paid for by corporate, especially industrial extraction, interests that they see our public lands not for their beauty and rejuvenatory value, but as something that can be exploited.  The Democratic Party has been the default party for many in the scorned environmental movement.  But they’re no less bought, and while the occasional Democrat offers a lip-service platform, they seem confused by the interests of the conservation minded and offer precious little for the support they take for granted.  There was a time, in the not to distant past, when fealty to the preservation of public spaces was taken as a given for reasons no more complex than because America should have wildlife and crystal clear lakes and fresh air and primordial forests.  Just cause, y’all.

So I don’t see conservation interests in a strict red-blue dichotomy, even if other planks of the platform place me firmly to the left.  If I were truly a single-issue voter I would see nothing in either major modern party to draw my interest.  The money rots.  It festers.  And it’s no coincidence that as corporate money in presidential campaigns increases, focus on things of value to all Americans, like public lands and clean air and water, decreases.

So perhaps the most interesting candidates in this campaign are destined to be the small-timers, the long shots.  Those without the albatross of corporate interests constraining their voice.  Is Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, that guy?  Well, it’s hard to say, because even though he’s perhaps more well-positioned to speak beyond the party line when it comes to environmental and conservation policy, he sort of doesn’t.  There’s no link to any sort of official policy on his campaign website, though I will offer that his statements to the effect of supporting scientific consensuses on climate change and evolution are refreshing, even if it’s sort of embarrassing that a candidate for President would have to make offer such obvious statements.  Not as embarassing as the fact that those statements are controversial, mind you, but I suppose credit where credit is due for even that low bar.  It suggests that Huntsman, alone among current GOP candidates, is living an a reality based world.  A good start.

But wait, there’s more.  Huntsman has even come out more or less forcefully on issues of habitat conservation, stating during a lecture series earlier this year:

“We will be judged by how well we were stewards of those (natural) resources. Conservation is conservative. I’m not ashamed to be a conservationist. I also believe that science should be driving our discussions on climate change,”

I’ll be honest, I’m sort of surprised to hear these words come out of the mouth of a self-described conservative, especially one running for the nomination in a climate that is among the most hostile to conservation interests in the Republican Party’s history.  The question remains, however, does this sort of rhetoric stand up to scrutiny?

In looking for Huntsman’s track record as governor of Utah, I was unable to find much.  For much of his time as governor, Huntsman passed off much of the environmental and energy policy to his Lieutenant Governor, and current governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, though he did make strides to bring alternative energy technology and interests to Utah, including geothermal, wind, and solar, through tax incentives and various breaks.  He signed the Western Climate Initiative with several other western state governors in an attempt to find solutions to carbon emission issues.  Granted, much of this involved disputed technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, but that’s picking nits.  Perhaps most politically courageous is his decision to not campaign in Iowa because of his opposition to corn and ethanol subsidies, a policy I think most enviros would share with even hard core libertarians.

But Huntsman is far from perfect.  His support for nuclear energy, for instance, is less than ideal.  His appointment of a defiant (and often trespassing) ORV-proponent to the position of Coordinator of the Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, which oversees the state’s public land policy, is a disappointing show of lack of respect to Bureau of Land Management restrictions on ORVs.  Most troubling, though, is his persistent support and push of relaxation of regulations surrounding the extremely destructive and dirty tar sands oil extraction in Utah despite the fact that the Bureau of Land Management has not completed a feasibility study on the environmental impact of such a initiative.  If tar sands mining goes forward, nearly 2 million acres of mostly public land could be affected.

In the end, Hunstman is a mixed bag.  While it’s hard to apply his actions as governor, where he has an obvious interest in promoting his state, to the broader United States, there’s reason to question some of Huntsman’s more adamant pro-conservation expressions of late.  That said, the former governor came out much cleaner than I expected.  For a Republican, you could clearly do worse.

Up next: Another also-ran.  Maybe Buddy Roemer?

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One Comment
  1. September 17, 2011 1:32 pm

    Thank you! We need this perspective on the GOP contenders.

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