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The Single-issue Voter: A birder’s look at Rick Perry (R)

December 9, 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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Oh, Rick Perry.  Which month was he the flavor of, exactly?

Most of the would-be presidents have environmental policies borne out of the sausage grinder of the legislative branch, where compromises are made that can twist up even the most dedicated conservationist platforms, but not so Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose 8 long years as the chief executive of the Lone Star State have seen him make dozens, if not hundreds, or decisions that have environmental and conservation ramifications.  And most notably, Perry was governor of arguably the most birdy state in the United States, one with a litany of some of the most famous bird hotspots on the continent.  There’s the Valley of course, but also High Island and Big Bend and Aransas, all sites that so many birders have made pilgrimages to over the generations.  Texas, more than any other place on the continent, is birding.  And more than that, people in Texas have made birding a business.  Whether that is because of Perry or in spite of him is question we seek to answer here.

Or perhaps, given what we already know about Governor Perry, a better question would be whether his environmental record is awful, or simply very bad.

Let’s not mince words here.  Perry’s history in Texas is one of consistently de-emphasizing environmental oversight with an eye towards accommodating corporate interests.  He won his first statewide election, for State Commissioner of Agriculture, by making a strong stand against regulation of pesticides.  Thanks to the help of large donations from corporate agricultural interest, he won one of the closest elections in Texas history.  While commissioner, Perry often made the case that compliance with existing regulations would hurt business, and he parted ways with the EPA with the argument that it “prioritized birds over the livelihoods of Texas landowners”.  As governor little changed, and he went about limiting any sort of regulation that he saw as overbearing, particularly for the fossil fuel industry that drives so much of Texas’s economy.  This sort of attitude is pretty much par for the course for any Republican candidate this year, but Perry is almost over the top in his anti-regulatory zeal.

I generally oppose the lumping of energy issues into environmental policy, but it must be said that it there’s something good to say about Rick Perry’s time as governor this would be where you’d put it.  Perry proposed a law to ensure that Texas derived 5880 megawatts of energy from renewable resources by 2015, a mandate that the state has already exceeded, and despite the expansion of the natural gas industry in the state, Perry has gone farther than many governers in gas producing states in requiring that hydro-fracking companies disclose the chemicals used in the process.  Hydro-fracking is a contentious, and it must be said, incredibly destructive, practice, and while Perry has done little to limit its spread, shedding light on the process is a welcome first step.

But the average birder is likely most interested in Perry’s relationship with Texas’s exceptional state park system.  Since 2008, Republicans in the state legislature have passed budgets with draconian cuts in the bottom line for the state’s public lands.  The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has seen their budget cut a whopping 21% for the next fiscal year.  Granted, this sort of austerity is less concerning for the the parks in the Valley, where entrance fees instituted on the thousands of annual visitors makes it easier to make ends meet independent of the state, but even jewels like Bentsen and Estero Llano Grande are not immune.  Both popular parks have seen closures during the week, and while the parks are still accessible (admission can be purchased via pay station), that limits the opportunities for programs and outreach assuming there’s staff available to administer them.

Closing state parks is bad enough, and illustrative of the priorities of a Perry Administration, but perhaps the most disappointing wrinkle in this otherwise fairly pedestrian political outcome is the fact that state park budget woes could have been prevented if money from fishing and hunting fees, money that traditionally goes to the TPWD budget, had been properly allocated.  In 2006, a reported $46 million in license dues was found sitting, untouched, in the state bank accounts, suggesting that the budget crises was entirely manufactured for political expediency.  That, or the folks working in Texas state government don’t have enough combined brain power to fire up a digital clock.  Not only that, but Perry’s TPWD was considering the sale of 46,000 acres of Big Bend State Park to cover the (manufactured) budget surplus, a plan that was only scuttled after it was reported by the Ft Worth Star-Telegram.

I could go on, of course.  There’s Perry’s insistence that global warming is a conspiracy by scientists.  His assertion that evolution is “a theory that’s out there”.  His plan to eliminate the Department of Energy upon election to the highest office in the land.  But none of these are particularly interesting or unusual in light of the rest of the GOP field.  That says more about the modern Republican party generally than it does about Perry specifically, but they’re really one and the same.  Perry is as much a straight-ahead GOP candidate as your likely to find in this race, and that typically doesn’t bode well for birds.

If Texas is a birding mecca, and it definitely is, Perry had very little to do with it.

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