You value nature, quality of life, your own health, and the future of today's children. You think you are environmentally responsible. You wouldn't dream of setting a forest fire, dumping used motor oil into a lake, or vandalizing a park, but you will vote for public officials who enact laws that are far more destructive. Roughly half of all American voters do exactly that.
With the stroke of a pen, a single politician can open tens of millions of acres of federally owned wilderness to logging, mining, oil exploration, and the whims of individual state governors. The same politician can extend billions in corporate welfare subsidies to polluting industries and dismantle long standing safeguards for clean air, clean water, and endangered wildlife. All of this and much more has happened in the past few years.
I wrote the previous paragraphs in 2004. The fact is, since 1981 every Republican administration has been vehemently anti-environmental. The huge difference between then and now is that when Republican Donald Trump was elected there was not much wilderness left to destroy. That did not stop him from removing federal protection from 24,770,290 acres (38,704 square miles) of federal land, which included places that were the last of their kind on Earth. That's an area as large as the entire state of Florida, and more federal land than Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican champion of conservation, protected during his presidency.
We have now destroyed nearly all of our wilderness exactly and only because Americans voted to do it. Because most of these same Americans schizophrenically believe they love nature, what remains of it in places like our national parks is traffic jammed and severely overcrowded; more like Disney World than places to experience nature. That was not true forty two years ago when I began traveling and doing nature photography, but it is so true now that I make a conscious effort to avoid national parks whenever I can. With few other undeveloped places to go I often wish I was born earlier, when there was so much more to see, experience, and photograph, and when people were so stupid they thought our wilderness was boundless. Unfortunately my lifetime spans the era when America is losing its last wild places. I did not think I would live long enough to see that happen, but it occurred much faster than I could ever have imagined. So, here we are. I feel sad for the future and those who will have to live in it. The kind of life I have had is already impossible for them.
Here in America we have only two political parties. The Republicans are literally hell-bent on environmental destruction for profit with no concern about consequences. The democrats have some conscience but they have been inept protectors of the environment. The result is enormous loss of wilderness during Republican administrations with occasional losses and inadequate proactive protections enacted during democratic administrations. No one can create more wilderness so every loss is permanent. With so little left and the destruction only becoming more aggressive and rampant, the future is bleak. Wanton greed is a strong, insidious, and relentless enemy.
It's not only wilderness. In the last four years rules affecting clean air, clean water, and global warming were eviscerated. Trump put a climate change denier (David Legates) in charge NOAA and the US Global Climate Change Research Program. Agencies like EPA were left unable to perform their functions after top scientists were replaced by pawns of polluting industries. It will take years to get agencies like these to function normally again because the scientists are gone. More than four years in the fight against global warming have been lost forever and key international alliances have been shattered. Other countries have now realized that America is capable of electing an erratic and unscrupulous extremist to power. They know it can easily happen again so they will not trust America with long term commitments the way they used to. No matter what Democrats do to fix things, the radicalized Republicans now feel completely free to reverse and destroy any previous agreements and progress America has made when they are next in power. In short, America is now regarded as an unstable country, because it is.
A very inconvenient fact is that humanity depends on nature and the environment for its very existence. Emotional needs and rewarding outdoor experiences aside, nature provides literally everything humans and all other life needs to exist, including clean air, water, and weather that allows survival and food production. For the last decade military leaders, including America's, have been studying how climate change may cause simultaneous crop failures on multiple continents, the greatest famines ever seen, massive human migrations, instability of governments, and even food wars. Since we're dealing with our own existence on a planetary scale, one might think every political party would consider it important. Republicans politicians never even talk about environment because their record is shameful and their base doesn't give a damn about it. I suppose people who don't care about this think it's alright to pass these problems to their children and grandchildren after it's already too late, or think they won't live long enough to see it happen. Or they just don't think.
My greatest frustration and puzzlement deals with the beginning of this essay. During a lifetime spent in America I have never encountered anyone who does not claim to in some way love, care for, enjoy, or need nature. I find it impossible to reconcile that with the fact that half of the population consistently votes as if they loathe it and can't destroy it fast enough. I have even been friends with some of these people, a couple of them for more than 30 years. As one might imagine, it is incredibly difficult to be friends with anyone who directly supports the destruction of everything you care about. At this stage of my life I am done trying.
I am certain my nature loving Republican friends know the abysmal environmental voting records of each candidate they support. It's easy to find out, and these are the same people who say Americans should have to pass a test to make sure they are informed before being allowed to vote. Or maybe it's just a matter of priorities. Perhaps they love nature but hate other races more, so they vote Republican no matter what? The fact is that since 1977 voting Republican means nature has no value to you beyond the dollars that can be made by destroying it. Period. As the saying goes, talk is cheap. You may claim concern and like pretty photographs, nature documentaries, going to the beach, and walking in suburban parks, but caring for nature means helping to protect and preserve it, not just using it and claiming it's important. Claiming to care for something you vote to destroy it is nothing but hypocritical. In photographing nature for the last 42 years I have seen the dramatic effects of elections first hand, over and over and over and over again. I'm sick of watching the rampant destruction my nature loving Republican friends visit upon the land and its wildlife while pretending to care about what they destroy. People own what they support. Our future environment will reflect only votes, not feelings or pretty pictures, or the fact you enjoy a walk outside. These same nature loving Republicans will probably feign sadness when everything wild is gone. Maybe that's better for them than admitting they are directly responsible. Or maybe they never cared in the first place, and their words of concern are lies. I would bet on the latter, since these nature loving Republican friends voted for Trump a second time in 2020, with full knowledge that he had already destroyed and tried to destroy more of America's wild lands than any U.S. President in history. They probably wanted to give him a chance to wreck what he missed during his first term. This could be a joke if it wasn't true, and so incredibly sad.
As distasteful as it may be, politics is how laws are made, and only laws can protect or destroy public lands, wildlife, clean air and clean water. Votes are very literally the only thing that can save or destroy our environment. I don't like that but it's how things are. History shows that we actually get more or less what we vote for. The simple fact is that one cannot legitimately care for our public lands, wildlife, nature, environment, or anything else while voting to deliberately destroy them. Thinking you can is like thinking it is possible to be friends with someone who wants to destroy your world.
P.S.: Also of note:
1. As shown by Teddy Roosevelt, and more recently even Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, conservation used to be a conservative value. Gerald Ford was the last Republican president with any significant concern or respect for the environment, and his term ended in 1977. Some might argue this, but I'd bet they haven't examined much of the GOP's environmental legislation in any detail. It's rife with bills and programs named for the opposite of what they actually do. To be fair there have been a few isolated Republican sponsored laws with positive environmental effect. They are few and far between, and usually have a "catch" that negates some or most of the good they might otherwise do.
2. For 40 years between 1977 and 2017 Republican politicians tried nearly 50 times to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Their efforts were unsuccessful due to Democrats and great public opposition, which still exists. In spite of the oil crisis of 1979, countless more minor oil shortages, and gasoline prices in excess of $4 per gallon, America did fine without destroying the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Then in 2017, with a record glut of petroleum, low gasoline prices, oil boom towns going bust in North Dakota for lack of profits, and absolutely no other economic justification, the maniacal Donald Trump and his Republican allies opened America's last piece of protected arctic to oil drilling. Republicans celebrated the conversion of America's last piece of protected and wild arctic into an oil field, just like they celebrated the destruction of Grand Staircase - Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in Utah, and the seventeen other areas they opened to take America's energy policies and pollution levels back to the 1950s.