Despite a recent influx of blue-state emigrés, the state of Colorado has a long, rich tradition of conservatism that can be traced back to its beginnings as a territory nestled in the frontier of the Wild West. Like much of the old American West, Colorado’s conservatism was imbued with a spirit that set it apart from the corporate, big-business conservatism of the Northeast; it was a political sensibility formed by the untamed vastness of the America that sat westwards of the Rockies, and colored by a distinct concern for self-reliance and the traditions and customs of its local communities.
As a young conservative student attending a small liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, I have always loved this traditional Coloradan political disposition: a gritty, localistic emphasis on civil society’s capacity to flourish without the aid of faceless government bureaucrats, and a reliably indignant suspicion towards those seeking to impose sweeping, technocratic changes to the Colorado way of life through the expansion of state power.
But as Americans with a different political understanding flood into Colorado from states like California and New York and President Donald Trump’s persistent unpopularity drives swing voters and suburban moderates leftwards, I worry that our state is in danger of losing its unique political character. Our state Legislature — now almost uniformly comprised of progressives — has made clear its intent to expand government in every area of Colorado life, repeatedly attempting to raise taxes and exponentially increasing the number of regulatory demands made upon the lives of everyday Coloradans to the point where some working-class families who have lived here for generations say they might have no choice but to leave.
Conservatives in our state desperately need to appeal to the swath of moderate Coloradans who are uncomfortable with the state of the contemporary Republican Party but simultaneously find the coastal progressivism that increasingly controls Colorado’s politics to be distasteful. One way to do this is to embrace an issue that American conservatism has long felt itself at odds with: environmentalism.
To me, conservatism is the political manifestation of gratitude, springing from the recognition of the fact that our heritage is worth defending. Understanding this, one would imagine that environmental conservationism would be a natural ally to the conservative political sensibility. But despite the seeming congruities between conservatism and conservation, the right has long ceded environmentalism to the left. In Colorado particularly, this must change — not only for the sake of the continued political viability of our state’s conservative tradition — but also because of the inextricable connection between the Colorado way of life and our vast, wide-open expanses of breathtakingly beautiful wilderness. If conservatives seek to conserve that which we love about our communities, the splendor of Colorado’s natural inheritance should be of preeminent concern for us.
Environmentalism in Colorado can and should have bipartisan appeal. Coloradans of every political sympathy have always held a special concern for the preservation of our natural landscape, informed by a deep gratitude for our environmental inheritance. To their credit, Colorado progressives have long understood this as a priority for state voters, and — despite the imprudence of many of their proposals — their ability to speak to the issue has won them significant electoral success in recent years. In reclaiming environmentalism from the left, conservatives in our state might regain some of the crucial political ground they’ve lost in recent years.
This does not mean, of course, that conservatives should be so naive as to endorse the host of disastrous left-wing policies that characterize a significant portion of progressive environmentalist legislation. But contrary to popular belief, there are a host of common-sense conservative policies that would help to address serious environmental issues like climate change. Legislative initiatives such as R&D for carbon capture and other green technologies, tax cuts and credits for renewable energy, and a variety of other limited government environmentalist proposals have begun to generate interest within some corners of the conservative coalition. Leading conservatives would do well to make such policies a priority, in Colorado and on the national stage.
On this front, there is good news: polling increasingly shows that young conservatives like me express a widespread desire for action on issues like climate change. In many ways, conservatives in my generation have begun to lead on this issue, with young Republican politicians like Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and Garret Graves (R-La.) modelling what conservative environmentalism would look like by putting forward legislative alternatives to left-wing policy initiatives like the Green New Deal.
Similarly, advocacy groups such as the American Conservation Coalition — an environmentalist nonprofit run by young conservatives advocating limited-government policy solutions to climate change — have begun to exercise serious influence on the conversation around climate policy.
But regardless of the particular legislation, what right-leaning Coloradans no longer can afford to do is ignore environmental issues like climate change, or merely mock the excesses of the more extravagant left-wing environmentalist policies. Conservatives must once again be conservationists — otherwise, we risk becoming irrelevant instead.
Nate Hochman is a student at Colorado College. He collaborated with the American Conservation Coalition team to produce this piece. You can follow Nate on Twitter at @njhochman and ACC at @ACC_National.