Imagine a Republican leader who racked up the following achievements: He fought smog by regulating vehicle emissions, kept dams from choking free-flowing rivers, set aside big chunks of wild backcountry for permanent protection, and supported a strong treaty to prevent harmful gases from mucking up the atmosphere.
Democratic operatives might just invite this candidate to switch parties, though GOP partisans might brand him a RINO, short for "Republican In Name Only."
Such a leader existed, and his name was Ronald Reagan. The Gipper knew better than to pigeonhole the environment as a partisan issue. He may have said some dumb things about trees, but he also said, "If we've learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it's common sense."
Conservation issues historically have been bipartisan. There is no reason to accept nonsensical assertions from elected officials that environmental stewardship is for liberals but not for conservatives. Is this a naïve wish? Despite what you might hear from talk radio hucksters or politicians trafficking in divisive rhetoric, there is broader agreement on the importance of conservation than seems apparent on the surface.
Last year, Colorado College's bipartisan State of the Rockies poll found broad evidence in six Western states that voters, by large majorities, value public lands for their contribution to quality of life, support clean air regulations, and believe renewable energy development should have high priority.
Western voters by and large believe a strong economy and strong environmental protections can co-exist, rendering conservation neither red nor blue. That is precisely the basis for the partnership struck up between the National Audubon Society and the Republican organization, ConservAmerica. It's called the American Eagle Compact, and it sends political leaders a simple message: All of us have a stake in good stewardship of the air, water, land, wildlife and climate; conservation ought to be a national priority that transcends partisan boundary lines.
So far, more than 64,000 people have signed the compact, which tells our political leaders that America is best served when governance is driven by shared values and common purposes, rather than extremism and polarization.
To be sure, many "yes, but" questions are bound to arise, given the state of politics that persists as we enter 2013. Perhaps most questions - and the fiercest arguments - are likely to touch on climate change. Can Republicans and Democrats even begin to find common ground on this complicated issue?
I think the answer is yes, because the problem will not go away, and fixing it will require a set of solutions that has buy-in from both Republicans and Democrats. Climate change will not be solved by jamming through unbalanced legislation along strict party-line votes.
Don't buy the stereotype that all Republican elected officials dismiss climate change. More than a few Republicans in Congress understand now that climate change presents serious risks to the economy, national security, and the environment.
To step up to the challenge, however, they need political cover, which the compact helps to provide by showing broad support exists for dealing seriously with climate change and other environmental matters.
Bipartisan support was indispensable for our greatest past conservation achievements. The Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, and other important environmental statutes have all stood the test of time in part because they were enacted with broad support from both sides of the aisle.
As California's governor and as our 40th president, Ronald Reagan did not need reminders about that lesson. He had a canny ability to blend his conservative principles with the pragmatism that is essential to effectively govern a large and diverse nation.
Reagan also didn't need reminders that sobering facts about environmental risks cannot be wished away; he knew that responsible leaders, conservatives and liberals alike, must face up to them. During his presidency, the politics of stratospheric ozone depletion were strikingly similar to the politics of climate change today. Scientists issued warnings; industries dismissed them. Politicians evaded and temporized; Reagan's administration itself was divided.
Reagan considered the facts, weighed the consequences of inaction and ordered his State Department diplomats to negotiate a strong treaty to phase out chemicals linked to ozone depletion. Upon securing Senate ratification of the resulting Montreal Protocol, he called the treaty a "monumental achievement." It was not hyperbole. The Montreal Protocol headed off a serious threat to public health and the environment. The treaty is regarded as the most successful international environmental pact ever negotiated.
President Reagan showed what's possible when leaders put the common good of conservation above narrower considerations. That's the message carried forward by the American Eagle Compact.
Jim DiPeso is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has been policy and communications lead for ConservAmerica in Seattle, Washington, since 2001.