Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) stands out in Congress as the lone registered forester.
The third-term congressman representing Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District has emerged as a leading conservative voice on conservation issues.
And for good reason.
He recently told me his thoughts on forest management, why he supports market-based conservation, why conservatism isn’t at odds with conservation, and more.
Forestry: A Calling
Congressman Westerman said his love of the Great Outdoors greatly influenced his decision to pursue a career in natural resources.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas with an engineering degree, he obtained a Master of Forestry from Yale University in a program established with help from Gifford Pinchot—a seminal conservation figure who served as the inaugural U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Director under President Theodore Roosevelt.
Pinchot helped pioneer the “wise use” approach to public lands management. Today, this “multiple-use, sustained yield” view is administered on national forests under the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960.
Like Pinchot, Westerman strongly adheres to this public lands philosophy.
“I think people are gun shy about any time you cut a tree or you extract minerals from the land,” he said. “They think that the land [is] being raided, and that's really not the case if you use scientific-base[d] management.”
True Cause of Wildfires and Need for Management
Westerman warned both the economy and environment could suffer immensely with poorly-managed forests.
“If we do a good job with forest and have healthy forest, we're automatically going to have a healthier environment,” he stressed. “And the really cool thing about forest is we can also have a strong economy.”
“I would contend that without a strong economy, you're going to have a worse environment.”
Rep. Westerman also stated climate change isn’t the outright cause of intense wildfires out West. He said poor management is. In turn, he believes two short-term solutions can help address the issue.
One “pragmatic approach,” he said, is the One Trillion Trees Initiative—a global initiative pledging to “grow, restore and conserve one trillion trees around the world.” President Trump has touted it and recently affirmed his support for it through an executive order creating an interagency council to coordinate the federal government’s cooperation.
“It looks not only at planting more trees, but taking care of the forest that we've got,” he added.
A second solution? Reducing and eliminating fuel load created by buildup in areas highly susceptible to burning. If done correctly, he said, fires will weaken and occur less frequently.
Free Market Environmentalism is the Path Forward
I asked the House Natural Resources Committee member about his support for free market environmentalism—a view embraced by a growing number of Americans.
Why did it take nearly 40 years for market-based conservation and free-market environmentalism to become mainstream? Westerman said this could be attributed to misinformation.
“I think people saw an abuse of the environment and they often connected that to capitalism—to growth in the economy—and they saw the pendulum swing too far to use it,” he offered.
“...We've got to focus on market-based conservation—implementing these free-market environmentalism ideas—so that the economy and the environment wins.”
Conservation is Conservative
The avid waterfowler and angler is delighted to see his fellow Republicans having more stake on wildlife management, habitat restoration, and sporting issues.
“We should never shy away from the word conservation,” he said.
“Conservation is a derivative of the word conservative. And it was Republicans that started the conservation movement. I mean, Teddy Roosevelt is considered the father of conservation in our country. You look at the bedrock environmental laws passed in this country. Most of them happen in the Nixon administration with [the] Clean Air Act, Clean Water [Act], the EPA, Endangered Species Act—all well-meaning, good laws. And now we've got the Great American Outdoors Act, which was a Republican Senate initiative that President Trump pushed for.”
“As a conservative, I believe that I have an obligation—the blessing to the past, for the blessings I received— to be here today. Plus, I have an obligation to the future: to leave what we've got in better shape for the next generation.”
“It's something that Republicans should be leading on. And we can't allow this idea of political environmentalism to come in where you think you can just regulate everything into this state of utopia, because you can't do it.”
Westerman told me the story of his grandmother, an avid gardener, who helped plant the seeds of conservationist ethics into his mind.
“When I was a little kid, I would go down and help her work in the garden,” he said excitedly.
“And she took gardening to a new level. She tried to grow as much as she could in that garden space and she let nothing go to waste. She either ate it, canned it, froze it, gave it away, fed it to an animal, or saved it for seed. Literally nothing that [the] garden produced was allowed to be wasted.”
“It's [conservation] where you take care of the land knowing the land is going to take care of you and you're not wasteful with what the land produces. And that idea can be expanded all across the great resources that we have in this country.”