Red counties, blue counties, and environmentalists

Published August 1, 2001

Tune in to any national news segment on the environment and you will get the same predictable format: video of beautiful natural splendor, followed by a doom-and-gloom portrayal of some Big Industry’s exploitation of the environment, followed by a local citizen condemning the evil industry and appealing for federal intervention.

To watch the national media’s portrayal of environmental issues, one would believe that everybody in rural America (and particularly Western America) belongs to the Sierra Club and voted for Ralph Nader (if they voted on principle) or Al Gore (if they voted on practicality). The “environmentalists” belong to Greenpeace, while the “common citizens” merely send annual membership dues to the Sierra Club.

“If you lived in rural America,” the national media seems to ask as it plays on the guilt of its predominantly urban and suburban audience, “wouldn’t you be an environmentalist?”

The great irony is that in almost every single aspect of the national media’s portrayal of environmental issues, nothing could be further from the truth.

I say “almost” because the one thing the national media gets right is the fact that rural Americans are environmentalists who fully appreciate the natural splendors of this country. They prove it every day by choosing to live, work, play, and raise their families closer to the earth than most members of the national media would ever care to.

And yet, when you look at an electoral map, it is immediately apparent that rural America, the so-called “red counties,” voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush and against “environmentalist” Al Gore. Rural America continually elects congressional representatives who subscribe to the view that man and nature can coexist in harmony, rather than the “People Suck” message of the radical environmental groups the national media chooses to promote. Alaskans, for example, support natural resource recovery in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge more than the citizens of any other state.

The national media portrays local citizens as anti-market, anti-progress, and anti-property rights because they can’t believe people who live closest to the ANWR or Glacier National Park or the Everglades could think any other way.

And yet across rural America there is a strong consensus on environmental issues: Environmentalism and human economic activity are mutually supportive rather than mutually destructive goals. They call it access, multiple use, wise use, sustained yield, and good stewardship. They point with pride to farms, ranches, and forests that provide lush habitat for wildlife and a modest living for generations of families.

When a New Yorker asks an Oregon logger why he lives and works where he does, the logger will invariably attest to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. When a Philadelphian asks an Alaska fisherman why she lives and works where she does, she will also invariably cite the northern state’s natural beauty. People who love and appreciate their surrounding environment do not work to destroy it.

Radical environmentalists are about as numerous and popular in rural America as Newt Gingrich-style Republicans are in Washington, DC. You can’t live on the land for long and still be anti-human, anti-market, and anti-technology. Rural folk just aren’t like that.

The next time you watch a misleading account of how rural America views environmental issues, keep in mind that the program was probably written in New York by a writer whose closest real encounter with nature was a stroll through Central Park. The casting was probably provided by Greenpeace. Then turn off the boob tube and ask your neighbor what he thinks.