What the recent U.S. elections mean for conservation

What Do the November Elections Mean for Conservation?

Note from the SNEWS editors: As longtime supporters of a number of outdoor nonprofits, we welcome the second of a recurring series of pieces from the Conservation Alliance. We would like to give others in our industry who are fighting the good fight a platform as well. If your organization is interested in contributing, please email us at

Check out the Conservation Alliance’s earlier column here: “How the industry helped — and will benefit from — San Gabriel’s new National Monument Designation.”

On Nov. 4, Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate, and added to their majority in the House of Representatives. Since the election, a lot of people have asked me what the election means for conservation. There are so many nuances to this election, that it is impossible to give a clear answer. But here are a few themes that I expect will come into play over the next two years.

  • This election was not a referendum on the environment. Voter turnout was the lowest it’s been since World War II. Only 36.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, which is dismal, even for a midterm election. Voters are fed up with Washington, and either stayed home, or voted against President Obama’s party. It has been said from this tiny electorate that few voters cast their ballots to make a statement about conservation and the environment. Quite the opposite. On the state and local levels, voters approved 35 measures to fund a record $13 billion in conservation initiatives.
  • Republicans must now govern. Now that the Republicans control both houses of Congress, they need to shift from obstruction to governing. After four years of near-total gridlock, Republicans have the opportunity to pass legislation, and demonstrate that they actually stand for something. There are dozens of bipartisan conservation bills languishing in the dysfunctional Congress. These bills may now have a better chance of moving. The likely new chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Rob Bishop, is known as a dealmaker, and he is developing an ambitious bill that could protect more than one million acres of Wilderness in eastern Utah.
  • More gridlock on climate change. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will soon be chaired by Sen. James Inhofe, who has called climate change a “hoax.” Don’t expect any climate change legislation to land on President Obama’s desk.
  • President Obama will exercise his veto power and executive authority. The president may have to use his veto power to stop any anti-environmental legislation that makes it through Congress. But, more likely, he will seek solutions to environmental issues through executive action. Obama already has reached deal with China to cut carbon emissions. Over the next two years, expect President Obama to designate more National Monuments, especially areas that have been proposed for Congressional protection.
  • All eyes on 2016. Republicans face a tough election in 2016, defending 24 Senate seats, while the Democrats defend only 10. Turnout in that presidential election will be much higher, which generally favors Democrats. Conventional wisdom says that Democrats likely will reclaim a majority in the Senate. But if Republicans run a strong presidential candidate, they could hold on to Congress, and win the White House. Regardless of your political leanings, if you care about conservation and the environment, recent history says that you should dread Republican control of Congress and the White House.

Elections matter, and we will soon learn just how much this one means for conservation.

–John Sterling, the Conservation Alliance