Off the grid and on the river, my life has been rewrapped like fresh hackle on a fly. I’m focused on water and wildlands, waking up far from the news flow during a rare sabbatical from my usual conservation work. I love politics. But releasing another brightly-speckled Idaho cutthroat trout into the river’s flow, I’m joyous to be away from the media and the 24-hour crap cycle of presidential spin.

While traveling the wild waters of Idaho, the role of green issues eddied around my thoughts. Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have very different environmental touchstones than me. Neither speaks to America’s—or their own—connection to parks, public lands, wildlife or even a glass of clean water, as many longtime conservationists do.

Yet there is a robust discussion of the environment in this presidential race. It is about energy. It is framed by big stuff like a struggling economy and national security, issues many traditional environmental groups don’t connect to their work. But as John Muir said 100 years ago, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

I started talking about these connections via my iPad as I went through small towns with cell coverage. I began tapping these thoughts in a forest campsite in Idaho’s Clearwater country, joined virtually by a set of well-informed and well-connected friends. Such is the nature of the modern campfire.

“In this election, the economy is the overwhelming issue for most voters of all political persuasions,” opined Rose Kapolczynski, Senator Barbara Boxer’s campaign manager for all four of her winning U.S. Senate races in the nation’s most populous state. While James Carville’s 1992 quip about “the economy, stupid” still resonates today, Rose explained why it matters now for conservationists.

“There are two reasons candidates don’t talk about issues like conservation,” Rose said. “First, it means you are missing the opportunity to talk about the economy. With only 10 weeks left until Election Day [even less time as you read this], you can’t miss a chance to connect with voters. Second, if you talk about something else it sends a message that you don’t understand what’s going on in the country or what average folks are going through.”

And we’re not really talking “average folks” here. We are talking about undecided voters in those famous battleground states. That’s all that matters. We’re watching media reports on candidates talking to undecided voters. They are not talking to me and probably not to you, either.

I don’t think I know a single undecided voter myself, but this subset of America in a subset of states is the whole ball game.

And the candidates are not talking about the environment. Or are they?

”That’s true only if you mean talking about the issue in terms that environmental groups describe it,” said Jim Blomquist, a veteran advocate for environmental issues. Blomquist was Sierra Club staff for many years and a mentor of mine in the wily ways of Washington, D.C. (and wily trout, as well). The environmental issues that groups describe in brochures full of scenic landscapes and fuzzy critters are not being talked about, he said, but energy is in a huge way. And energy relates to almost everything.

“I have never seen clean energy, or any environmental issue, play this large a role in a presidential election,” said Bill Arthur, deputy field director of the Sierra Club. “Energy ads by both presidential candidates are running in all the swing states and Iowa, Colorado, Ohio are in particular getting a barrage,” Arthur said.

But it’s a lot more than ads. It’s much deeper than that. Obama sees clean energy as one way to revitalize the economy. Stimulus funds in the Recovery Act were the single largest investment in clean and renewable energy in America’s history. Romney sees clean energy spending as government run amok and environmental regulations blocking energy development that would employ thousands.

Obama “has clearly licensed the Environmental Protection Agency to ‘go big,’” Arthur said. “There is a reason the coal industry is in a panic.”

When polluting industries get excited, they make it known. At the Republican Convention, the chief lobbyist for America’s coal industry, Mike Duncan, himself a former chairman of the Republican Party, had an insider role in charge of the Convention Credentials Committee and spoke from the main stage. On the first day of the convention alone, politicians speaking from the podium represented over $4.4 million in campaign cash from oil, gas and mining companies. Talk about a crowd hoping for change.

Mitt Romney has wondered why the federal government manages so much land in the West.

Romney’s plans for America’s public lands are more clear in his new energy plan: turn energy development on America’s public lands over to the states. There are proposals right now for coal and oil and gas projects right outside of Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Theodore Roosevelt and Grand Teton national parks. The American West would look different right away if states managed energy development on our public lands.

The Romney energy plan is anchored to his political philosophy: Less regulation is good because it fosters private enterprise and that will grow the economy.

He may be right, if you accept the environmental cost. Environmental protection depends on laws, rules and regulations that may preclude some economic activity. The Republican platform on environmental policy sets the tone: “The most powerful environmental policy is liberty, the central organizing principle of the American Republic and its people. Liberty alone fosters scientific inquiry, technological innovation, entrepreneurship and information exchange. Liberty must remain the core energy behind America’s environmental improvement.”

Romney is using energy and the environment to get elected. If anything, Romney is using these issues to look tough and not look like the Massachusetts kind of Republican he once was. The Obama administration’s record on energy and the environment is different, and not just in tone. He’s the incumbent with more to judge him on.

He actually has a record.

While most environmentalists see a pretty clear choice between candidates, not many would call the president a champion for the cause. Part of that is the man himself. He is concerned with other issues. But a lot of Obama’s lack of environmental profile stems from the bureaucrats who surround him. Bill Clinton was not an environmental advocate, but he hired people who were. I worked with these folks: Bruce Babbitt, Katie McGinty and many more. The people Clinton hired had a policy agenda, understood politics and were strong advocates for how environmental policy would help their boss. Obama has few such advocates, with the possible exception of Lisa Jackson at EPA.

Obama also faced a different political environment. A big part of that is the economy. We cannot afford new protections and the economy occupies all available airspace. I have another theory, too. In politics, you move issues because interest groups clear the path. But “environmentalists” are not the powerhouse they have been in other election cycles. The biggest green issue during this administration was, arguably, climate and the cap and trade bill. It lost. Winning demonstrates power. Losing, not so much. What some call a movement is not as tight as it’s been. We do defense better than offense; fighting huge Bush rollbacks fits the skill set better than working the margins with a more friendly administration.

More locally, I consider conversations I’ve had with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and many members of Congress about wolves. However you may feel about wolf recovery and delisting through a congressional rider, one thing is certain to most any outside observer of environmental policy: Environmentalists botched wolf politics and that bled power and credibility.

Obama, in my view, also sees the environment as embedded with other issues. While energy policy is, in part, about impacts on parks, clean air and water, it is also about reducing reliance on fossil fuels. It’s about getting out and staying out of wars in the Middle East. Obama knows we’ve been fighting wars for oil and wants to stop doing it. He’s been an advocate for reducing dependence on coal and connects that to climate easily, even mentioning it in his convention speech, but when it comes to connecting energy policy with general craziness of the Middle East, he’s on a different and faster timeline. He’s raising mileage standards, which we like, but expanding oil and gas production here at home, which causes concern. The Keystone pipeline and Canadian tar sands make many of my colleagues nervous.

When it comes to the environment, some things have changed, but much remains the same. In 1970, President Nixon created the U.S. EPA. Earth Day—the first one—was held the same year. The environment was big and big things were happening, but when Nixon took the stage at the 1972 Republican convention, he made no mention of it. A recent analysis by Greenwire (Aug 30, 2012) shows energy independence as the environmental issue that has consistently engaged presidential politics for four decades, a nod to the frequently sagging economy, high gas prices and debates about regulation.

White House signing of the Owyhee Initiative

The author’s view of the Owyhee Wilderness signing ceremony at the White House in 2009 / Rick Johnson

Not long after Obama’s swearing in, I was invited to the White House to witness the creation of Idaho’s first new wilderness in 29 years—the Owyhee Canyonlands. I sat in the front row and easily captured Obama’s left-handed signature on the document with my phone camera. While swept away by the moment, the rich history of the room and my inclusion in that cast of characters, I knew well that Obama didn’t make that deal possible.

That, to me, is the real green hole: the failure of leaders and candidates to bring people together to create solutions in the middle for our air, water, energy future, and yes, for more cutthroat trout.

That’s a lot more than an environmental problem. It’s an American problem. My greatest critique of the Obama administration is that he failed to deliver on the promise of bringing people together. Congress didn’t help, obviously, but there are real examples of the administration failing to lead.

It can be done. We’ve done it here in Idaho. The Owyhee Initiative, the reason I was invited to the White House, is only one example of our remarkable success bringing people together.

Surrounded by deep green Idaho water, fly rod in hand, decades of environmental work swirled in my thoughts. Also swirling around me were rivers protected by the courageous work of conservationists, our “opponents” and certain political leaders who were willing to step away from the rhetoric, sit at the table and really work some things out.

Something green is missing in presidential political headlines, but more talk about the environment won’t fill the hole. Only leadership can. And that has to come from us. So it’s time to get back to work.

But not quite yet… Fish on!

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Sara A.

    I disagree that environmental protections and the laws that create them may preclude economic activity. Laws and regulations create economic activity of a different sort and indeed create jobs. These jobs often are opportunities for professionals – scientists, lawyers, policy analysts and the like. I take issue with this statement becuase I think it falls into the limited perspective that our nation must get out of. We can create jobs, foster economic growth, and protect the environment. It has happened before. Granted, it isn’t easy and there are plenty of examples were we got it wrong. I think the the Clean Water Act (happy 40th birthday CWA!) is a great example. It requires states to demonstrate that water quality is improving – which, in Idaho, requires hiring college students to sample waters in the state, hiring scientists to analyze the water, and paying a professional to write up the reports.

    If we want to provide economic activity for skilled workers, like the guys who would work on a drill rig – we need to provide incentives for manufacturing opportunities in the U.S. A point President Obama mentioned in the last debate. Sure, all this stuff is complex and not one of us has all the answers. But I think the author is right, leadership starts with every one of us. We can continue to lead by rejecting that environmental laws and economic opportunities are mutually exclusive and continually making those connections that draw a line between the health of our natural resources and our long-term economic security.