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The New West: A moderate Republican assessed loss of party

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

For a generation, we read about the defection of moderate Reagan Democrats to the Republican Party. What will historians make of the current flight in the other direction?

Two decades ago, in the mid-1990s, the late Russell W. Peterson, a onetime colleague of Wyoming’s Cliff Hansen and California’s Ronald Reagan in the fraternity of Republican governors, made his switch from right to left.

Peterson departed after the GOP abandoned its principles of wariness toward fighting wars and progressive-yet-conservative ideals applied to both ecology and commerce, he told me during one of many conversations we had.

Peterson became governor of Delaware when Jackson Hole cattleman Hansen was governor in Cheyenne.

While later serving in the U.S. Senate, Hansen was called upon to confirm Peterson’s appointment as head of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

The CEQ, a hugely important but little-known entity, was created with passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, promoted by hawkish Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington state, which requires thorough environmental study of major developments on federal public lands.

Jackson was reviled by the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Back in the day, Peterson’s appointment to CEQ was won with support from centrist Republicans like Hansen and behind the scenes from people former New York Republican governor-turned-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, of course, was the brother of Laurance and son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., founder of Standard Oil, who starting in the 1920s, secured much of the land for present-day Grand Teton National Park—ironically against the wishes of many locals, including Hansen, then a Teton County commissioner.

In his memoir, “Rebel With a Conscience,” which I read as background for book about Ted Turner, Peterson, by profession a Ph.D.-chemist and executive with the DuPont chemical company, wrote of how the Republican Party became captive to radical right-wing Christian fundamentalists who are anti-science and anti-regulation.

He said one of the individuals trying to blockade his appointment to CEQ was George H.W. Bush on behalf of oil companies angry that Peterson protected a stretch of the Delaware coast from drilling when he was governor.

Peterson also pointed to a conversation captured on tape in the Oval Office between President Nixon and auto industry executives Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford Jr., who were lobbying against regulations to make cars with better fuel economy.

“Environmentalists are a group of people that aren’t really one damn bit interested in safety or clean air,” Nixon said. “What they are interested in is destroying the system. They’re enemies of the system … the great life is to have it like when the Indians were here.”

It now seems obvious the auto industry destroyed its own system without any help from environmentalists, and now the Trump administration is rolling back standards intended to make cars more efficient to drive, less polluting and get by on less gas.

What’s telling is this: More than 40 years ago, Peterson, who went on to become president of the National Audubon Society, put forth a plan for America to produce half of its energy through conservation and improved efficiency, and the remaining through other conventional and non-traditional sources.

The initiative was taken up by President Jimmy Carter but the Reagan and Bush administrations “essentially abandoned federal programs to stimulate the development of energy efficiency—a major disserve to America,” Peterson told me.

“For too long the gospel according to Wall Street has decreed that environmental regulations cost jobs and hurt business,” he noted. “But now many chief executives have learned from their own experience that environmental regulations can actually benefit the bottom line—that they create jobs and business opportunities.”

Peterson penned those thoughts decades ago, before anti-regulation, anti-environmental fervor triggered a cascade of job and wealth loss unequalled since the Great Depression.

Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal ( and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

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