When Martha Marks, president of Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP), was a college student in the 1960s, she never thought anything about the fact that she was both a Republican and an environmentalist.
Then the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, choking with pollution, caught fire and burned for several days. Responding to the era's climate of activism and her horror over the burning water, she decided to make her voice heard.
"It was a time of progressive politics," she recalls. "People were looking to protect the world."
Now, decades later, Marks is a forerunner in advocating conservation in the GOP, helping to make the nation safe for moderate Republicans to come out of the environmental closet. Besides being the author of six text-books, a wildlife photographer and a county commissioner in Illinois, she is the keynote speaker for this weekend's Alliance for the Wild Rockies Rendezvous at Snowbowl.
Marks points to the long tradition of conservation in the Republican party, including Teddy Roosevelt's establishment of our national parks, Barry Goldwater's lifelong environmental crusade and Richard Nixon's clean air and water acts.
"It never used to seem like an oxymoron to be a Republican environmentalist," she explains. "Conser-vatives conserve, they don't squander. Then in the '80s, we had Ronald Reagan saying that trees cause pollution."
Marks and other Republicans of like mind watched with growing unease as elected GOP officials became more vocally anti-environmental in the 1990s, a time when the right wing seemed to especially prize big business' ability to operate with a minimum of government involvement.
In 1995, after Congress attacked laws protecting air, water, land and endangered wildlife, Marks traveled from her home north of Chicago to Washington, D.C. for a conference on the Endangered Species Act attended mostly by Democrats.
"Everybody made a big point in saying about me, 'Here's our token Republican official.' So people would sneak up to me and whisper that they were Republicans too. We started talking about how our vision did not correspond with the current GOP agenda."
Marks left the meeting with a renewed sense of outrage, and as a result, she and three other women started REP. They wrote a statement of principles to explain their philosophy of "having it all": a good economy accompanied by environmental protection.
"We wrote a press release and faxed it to what seemed like every newspaper in the world," Marks laughs. "It was sort of a 'Man Bites Dog' story, this idea of a grassroots Republican environmental group. It was amazing. As soon as it ran in a few papers, we started getting calls, and it snowballed."
Just three years later, after steady word-of-mouth promotion, REP has more than 2,000 members in 47 states, as well as a board of directors and a quarterly newsletter called The Green Elephant. Having taken the bold initial step of publicly decrying the anti-environment antics of their GOP cohorts, the REP continues to vocalize conservation strategies, backing green Republican candidates and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which they co-sponsored.
Marks describes her Eastern United States Republican world, which she says most GOP conservationists belong to, as being far different from the one we know in Montana. There, in the absence of vast tracts of wilderness and camera-ready megafauna, development is the key issue.
"There is still so much open land in the West," she notes. "You haven't gone through the experience of seeing your favorite places destroyed. We've come to understand the value of protection."
What she has a harder time understanding, though, is why so many Western politicians continually refuse to support environmental legislation.
"There is still the Wild West mentality of no government interference," she says. "I don't understand why people aren't more responsive to eco-tourism, or why they object to the Nature Conservancy, which pays people for land they want to sell. Why are elected officials under the thumb of the extractive industries? If [those industries] destroy everything, people like me won't visit."
Plus, she says, the commonly held belief that those industries contribute a large amount of jobs and money to Montana's economy is outdated and overestimated. In fact, according to the Alliance, the wood-products industry provides four percent of the state's jobs, and mining provides less than one percent, while tourism provides close to 50 percent of Montanans' employment.
These are all topics Marks plans to discuss at the Wild Rockies Rendezvous. But above all, she wants to stress that the need for a thriving natural environment is not only bi-partisan, but universal.
"How can the Hard Right be so concerned with an unborn child but not care about the world the child grows up in?" she emphasizes. "If you care about life, you care about all life. The smart long-term economic plan for a state like Montana is to cater to the need others have to come there and enjoy scenic beauty. People will come forever and spend millions of dollars. Extractive industries, on the other hand, are not permanent."