Mention a rule or law to protect the environment, and most Democrats will usually line up on one side of the issue and most Republicans on the other – be it drilling in the Artic National wildlife refuge or opening up wilderness areas to logging. It was not always so.
There was a time when moderate Republicans joined with Democrats to adopt far reaching environmental legislation. At one time, Republican even took the lead. Remember Vermont’s Republican Senator Robert Stafford and the Clean Air Act? He was one of its major proponents. And it was Vermont Republican Governor Deane C. Davis who took the initiative to bring forward Act 250, a law that has lead to quality development for the past 33 years. Yes, it could use a little fine-tuning, but the basic premise that Vermont should not be overrun by shoddy development remains firmly implanted in the minds of Vermonters.
Deane Davis took action because he was shocked by the sight of ticky-tacky chalets and raw sewage slipping down the hillsides of a ski area in southern Vermont. The bottle ban? Vermont was the second state, after Oregon, to require a nickel deposit on soda cans and bottles, again thanks to a Republican legislator, Ted Riehle. It was an odd coalition that lead to the bottle deposit law – farmers and environmentalists. Democrats were not in the lead because labor opposed the law, fearing that it would be bad for jobs. Several years later when a candidate for governor proposed repealing the bottle law, he lost. Both Democrats and Republicans were united in their firm support for this effective environmental law.
Today, not only have Republicans abandoned their once energetic environmental agenda, they have deserted the moderate Republicans who supported it. For evidence, we have only to look at Jim Jeffords and the issues that drove him into the Independent camp. I believe the weakening of environmental laws and regulations is a case of the Congress and the president of not listening to their own voters. Protection of the environment, for our enjoyment, health and safety, should not be a partisan issue.
In Vermont, it is in danger of becoming so whenever jobs are pitted against the environment. It is not, and should not become, such an either/or choice. In Washington, the administration and the Congress have already decided that protecting the environment exacts too high an economic cost.
It’s time to regroup and rethink the legacy we will leave to the next generation, who will ask us, one day: What have you done to leave us a good earth?
Madelein May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.