The day after the presidential election Audubon New York held a lunch in the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center, in part, to honor George Pataki. I’m personally familiar with New York’s former governor and his record, having profiled him for Audubon seven years ago because he was so successful in protecting land. By the time he left office a year ago he conserved more than one million acres of open space.
At the time, I wrote, “Much of Pataki's conservation success stems from the Nixon-goes-to-China credibility of this fiscally conservative Republican who boasts of cutting 57 different taxes. But will his land-buying binge continue if the economic downturn makes it harder to balance budgets? "Absolutely," he replies. "It would cost less. It's a question of priorities."
Where Pataki goes out on a limb is in building his environmental case on economic grounds, reeling off statistics about high employment in ecotourism and environmental cleanup. It all sounds very Al Gore-ish, and contrasts sharply with one Republican rallying cry for the past 20 years: that conservation is bad for business.
Economic growth and environmental protection are not only not incompatible, they are synergistic," he says. "You think about places like Silicon Valley—an important factor is quality of life. People want to go out and fish in a pond. They want to go out and take a hike. They want to breathe clean air, even go out and look at birds now and then.”’
During the lunch Pataki reiterated similar themes, ticking off environmental issues like pollution and global warming before telling the audience, “It’s not about us. It’s about future generations.” It was hard not hear this moderate Republican’s message without feeling a tinge of nostalgia about the demise of an endangered species.
In Connecticut the defeat of U.S. Rep. Chris Shays (who had a 90 lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters) marked the first time since the GOP’s creation in 1854 that New England will be bereft of a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. Led by George W. Bush, the national Republican party has been nothing, if not hostile to the environment. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, if you’re an environmentalist, it’s better to have both parties competing for your cause. It wasn’t that long ago, well maybe a generation ago, that saving endangered species and protecting clean air and water was a bi-partisan issue. As Republicans regroup after their drubbing, will they come to their senses? As the old saw goes, politicians don’t see the light till they feel the heat.