What Does the Election Mean for Conservation?


Tuesday's election was historic on many levels. Aside from the obvious – our first African American President, a record voter turnout – in the quieter corners of the election results lie some great news for conservation in the US. The Conservation Alliance has invested heavily in grassroots efforts to build support at the local level for the protection of wild lands and rivers managed by the federal government. Many of those local efforts have taken, or will soon take, legislative form to be considered by the US Congress. Following is a rundown of states where our grantees are working on projects, and how the election has changed the political dynamics for those projects.

Jeff Merkley has defeated Senator Gordon Smith in one of the tightest Senate races in the country. Smith was the last Republican Senator on the west coast, and has been inconsistent on conservation. He strongly supports the proposal for new wilderness designations on Mount Hood, and over time came to support similar designations for two desert wildlands, the Badlands and Spring Basin. But, he has refused to support a popular effort to protect the tributaries of the Rogue River. To call Smith a conservation leader would be a stretch, as he usually follows the lead of Oregon's other Senator, Ron Wyden. Most in the conservation community think Merkley will be much stronger on conservation.

Efforts to protect wild places in Colorado got a huge boost from the election of Congressman Mark Udall to the Senate seat vacated by Wayne Allard. Udall is a champion of conservation, and led the effort in the House of Representatives to move legislation to protect 250,000 acres of wilderness in Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado now has two Senators who are committed to protecting wildlands and rivers. Allard was often an obstacle to conservation in the state, so Udall's victory is a good sign for the future of the Rocky Mountain National Park effort, and for the campaigns to protect Dominguez Canyon, Browns Canyon, and public lands in the San Juan Mountains.

New Mexico
Tom Udall (Mark's cousin) won the Senate seat vacated by long-time opponent of conservation Pete Domenici. Udall is a strong advocate for conservation, and is likely to help efforts to protect wilderness areas throughout New Mexico. On the House side, Martin Heinrich, a strong conservationist, won the seat that represents Albuquerque and surrounding areas. Heinrich once served on the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance board of directors.

Idaho remains a challenging state for conservation, but the election brought two major changes. First, former governor Jim Risch won the Senate seat vacated by Larry Craig, who spent his entire career in the Senate fighting conservation efforts. Risch supports Idaho Conservation League's (ICL) proposal for Wilderness designations in the Boulder-White Clouds Mountains. In other great news, ICL board member Walt Minnick beat incumbent Bill Sali in the race for one of Idaho's two House seats. Minnick will join Congressman Mike Simpson – the champion of legislation for the Boulder-White Clouds – in representing Idaho. 

There were no major changes in Montana. Pro-conservation Senator Max Baucus easily won re-election, and now has a long six years before his next campaign. With that breathing room, it seems likely that Baucus will join with Senator Jon Tester in his effort to champion legislation to protect 500,000 acres of wilderness in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, which Tester has indicated he will introduce in 2009.

There were no changes in California that will significantly impact conservation efforts there. Several California Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers bills are pending in Congress, and their champions all won re-election.

Each year, the League of Conservation Voters publishes a scorecard to gauge how members of Congress voted on key energy and environmental issues. The higher the score, the more frequently a member voted for the environment. Following is a summary the new members of Congress from key states, the people they are replacing, and their respective LCV Scorecard ratings. Most of the newly elected do not have voting records to rate, hence the n/a.

State  New Member(LCV Score)   Replacing (LCV Score)
CO  Sen. Mark Udall (92%)     Sen. Wayne Allard (18%)
NM  Sen. Tom Udall (92%)     Sen. Pete Domenici (18%)
NM  Rep. Martin Heinrich (n/a)    Rep. Heather Wilson (23%)
OR  Sen. Jeff Merkley (n/a)     Sen. Gordon Smith (38%)
ID  Rep. Walt Minnick (n/a)    Rep. Bill Sali (8%)
ID  Sen. Jim Risch (n/a)     Sen. Larry Craig (9%)
NC  Sen. Kay Hagan (n/a)     Sen. Elizabeth Dole (12%)
NH  Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (n/a)    Sen. John Sununu (35%)

On larger issues, yesterday's election indicates that the US is likely to take greater leadership on the worldwide effort to combat global warming and encourage new advancements in alternative energy. President-elect Barack Obama made investing in new energy technologies a key campaign issue. He has also made strong statements about curbing carbon dioxide emissions. We can also expect Obama to appoint pro-environment people to fill important positions at EPA, and the Interior and Agriculture departments, which manage our public lands.
That's the quick overview. All in all, the conservation movement has endured a difficult eight years, but the next four should be very productive ones for conservation.