While the toast will be made with a glass that's only half full, these victories can be relished in the warm company of some new and unlikely friends of conservation, whose support for sound stewardship was the critical ingredient in this year's accomplishments.
It may have taken Hurricane Katrina, melting of polar ice caps, drought and wildfires, and a popular movie by former Vice President Al Gore, but the nation finally seems ready to tackle the "inconvenient truth" of global warming. In August, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a measure establishing the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal in the country, requiring the state to reduce its emissions 25 percent by 2020. Similarly, seven governors in the Northeast, tired of inaction at the federal level, agreed to a regional initiative that creates the nation's first mandatory cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide.
In July, President Bush surprised many by designating the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument, creating the world's largest marine reserve. The area, which covers 140,000 square miles of ocean, contains nearly 70 percent of the tropical coral reefs in U.S. waters and is home to 7,000 species of terrestrial and marine life, including the last of the endangered Hawaiian monk seals.
Wilderness - the gold standard for land protection - made a remarkable resurgence in 2006, enjoying a level of bipartisan support that rivals that which made possible the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. This session, Congress has passed legislation to designate more than a half-million acres of wilderness, including 76,000 acres of majestic and biologically rich habitat in New England's White and Green Mountain National Forests.
Environmentalists also put on a defensive display worthy of football's best Thanksgiving Day rivalries. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was once again thwarted, a Bush administration proposal to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forestland to fund a rural schools program was sacked, while a federal court rebuked - at least temporarily - the Forest Service's attempt to jettison the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protects almost one-third of the nation's last undeveloped forests.
Cornerstone conservation measures such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act also will live to see another day, narrowly escaping a blitz by special interests to dismantle them.
Whether on offense or defense, environmentalists didn't go it alone. It's been a team effort, with a roster of diverse players who no longer believe they can sit on the sidelines. Consider, for example, farmers and ranchers, faced with years of severe drought, now are urging lawmakers to address global warming. Hunters and anglers, concerned about loss of wildlife habitat, particularly in the Rocky Mountains, are calling for more measured approaches to drilling and development. The voices of Rotary and Sierra Club members are nearly indistinguishable when it comes to protection of wilderness and local landscapes.
Prominent religious leaders can be heard from both the pulpit and podium seeking action on climate change and extolling the virtues of being sound stewards of God's resources. Indigenous peoples, understanding that conserving natural resources means saving native culture, have re-emerged as important environmental allies, as they demonstrated most recently in the establishment of the Hawaiian marine reserve.
Washington may have some new cooks in the kitchen, but the recipe for success shouldn't change. Most agree that the 110th Congress will be a moderate one, filled with new members, elected by slim margins, who will gravitate toward advancing more modest measures that enjoy diverse, bipartisan support. Environmental issues will be no exception. Conservation will continue to be best served by careful selection of priorities, cooperative efforts and timely compromise.
Remembering this will go a long to way to ensuring that our toasts on future Thanksgivings will not be made with a glass that is half full, but with a cup that runneth over.