12/07/2004 - With this election now one for the history books, many environmentalists may feel that the candidates were as silent on conservation issues as Rachel Carson's spring. Not so. Voters who care about the environment were very much in the sights of this year's contenders. They were just concealed in the camouflage of the nation's 40 million hunters and anglers.The October issue of Field & Stream said it all: There were George W. Bush and John Kerry wearing bright orange and wielding shotguns under this banner headline: "This much we know: The next President of the United States will be a sportsman."
The candidates' hot pursuit of votes from sportsmen and sportswomen is a testament to their growing political clout. Concentrated in the traditional battlegrounds of the Rust Belt, this constituency historically chooses issues over party affiliation. In a nation cast as sharply divided, with its states separated into distinct columns of red and blue, those who hunt and fish represent a welcome middle ground on environmental policy.
Senator Kerry's campaign trail activities included stints shooting trap in Wisconsin and pheasant in Iowa. "I am a life-long hunter and fisherman," he said in unveiling his "Sportsman's Bill of Rights," an agenda that includes the right to high quality fish and wildlife habitat, increased conservation resources and increased access to millions of new acres for hunting and angling. While no one questioned the Massachusetts senator's marksmanship, some suggested he was making a play for the support of a constituency that often differed with him on Second Amendment issues.
President Bush took aim at their support as well, after taking some well-publicized criticism of the environmental record of his first term. Public disapproval of policies on wetlands and energy development resulted in the president meeting personally with hunting and angling groups at the White House and at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. It worked. The administration scuttled a proposed rollback of Clean Water Act regulations protecting wetlands and, in the closing days of the campaign, reversed a decision to open up to drilling an area in the Rocky Mountain Front known as "America's Serengeti."
This courtship could signal a long-awaited shot in the arm for the nation's neglected conservation agenda and offer needed reinforcements to a war-weary environmental community. Contrary to the stereotype that depicts hunters and anglers as concerned only about firearms, this constituency cares deeply about land and water protection. A survey taken by the National Wildlife Federation this summer found that sportsmen and women rate the loss of wildlife habitat, wetlands and pollution as their top concerns - ahead of gun control.
Over the next couple of years, Congress will revisit many of the nation's bedrock environmental laws. Leaders of the hunting and angling communities are credible and respected voices who will be critical to protecting key conservation cornerstones, particularly in the West.
Their influence may not be limited to the land. The estimated tens of thousands of recreational saltwater anglers also could have a lot to say about the future of our oceans as Congress prepares what could be a significant overhaul in the way marine resources are managed.
Some may never be willing to describe George W. Bush as an environmentalist. But he - like the man he defeated - is a self-proclaimed sportsman. In this second term, he would provide the nation a great service if he took the path of another sportsman turned president: Theodore Roosevelt.
Jane Danowitz manages the U.S. public land protection program for The Pew Charitable Trusts.