Policy: Environment & Energy

R Street Institute promotes quirky 'conservative conservationism'

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Ron Arnold,Columnists,EPA,Analysis,Energy and Environment

Washington’s R Street Institute was formed last year in a split from Chicago’s Heartland Institute when the well-known midwestern conservative think tank ran a provocative digital billboard portraying global warming believers as equivalents of the Unabomber.

Heartland’s Washington-based office — centered on finance, insurance and broader issues — wasn’t notified in advance and found themselves in an untenable position, since they believed global warming is a genuine threat.

The left’s leading mothership, the Center for American Progress, assigned its front groups, Forecast the Facts and ThinkProgress, to mount a vicious attack campaign, joined by Greenpeace and Union of Concerned Scientists, in hopes of scaring away Heartland's contributors.

The Washington project staff resigned without rancor from Heartland and their donors followed them — with Heartland’s urging. Eli Lehrer, who formerly led Heatland's Washington staff now heads R Street.

He views climate change as a real problem, but one best solved without cap and trade, which he told me he utterly rejects. He emphasized that the resignation wasn’t about climate disagreements.

So the billboard morphed Lehrer and staff into the co-founders of R Street.

They got their IRS approval as a stand-alone non-profit free market conservative think tank — but one with a difference. Some of its positions surprised other conservative think tanks.

Recent example: R Street raised hackles by portraying President Reagan as a greenie by using glowing quotes from the 1988 Council on Environmental Quality annual report.

Reagan likely never saw them — they don’t resemble what he said repeatedly in Domestic Policy Council cabinet meetings, something I know from writing the official biography of Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, in 1982.

Last month, R Street touted Reagan’s Aug. 27, 1982, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument proclamation as “conservative conservationism” that “should underscore to elected leaders the economic development potential of federal conservation efforts.” Did that imply Reagan supported expansion of the federal domain?

The St. Helens proclamation didn’t expand federal ownership. The volcano stood in a national forest long before it blew up in May 1980, and the U.S. Forest Service already managed it as a scenic and recreational area, so it actually sets an example for keeping all new designations inside existing federal boundaries.

R Street’s website says, “Associate Fellow Ryan Cooper pointed to research from the Headwaters Economics showing that, since the monument’s establishment, the surrounding region has seen …” followed by statistics citing great economic growth from tourism.

But their numbers don’t sort tourism from the economic impact of growth in nearby urban centers, Portland, Ore., and Vancouver and Longview, Wash., just down the I-5 corridor from the volcano’s gateway, Castle Rock. Headwaters merely shows correlation, not causation.

Headwaters Economics is a Montana non-profit environmental group run mostly by academicians and funded by a cluster of rabidly “progressive” Big Green foundations.

Since their founding in 2006, Headwaters has received 36 grants totaling $2,464,214 according to IRS Form 990 reports — more than a million of that from the uber-progressive Hewlett Foundation.

Critics see Headwaters as a brainy PR agent for land-use control that operates in so slick a manner that it could promote Hell as a nice retirement community.

I asked Lehrer why his institute would credit such a biased group. He told me he did not know of Headwaters Economics and did not want to be implicated in any connect-the-dots conspiracy theory. That’s a flat denial, and I respect it.

R Street’s website has also said good things (and bad) about the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created by Congress in 1964.

The LWCF has crushed so many victims with property condemnations that it is arguably the most hated program in the federal arsenal. R Street folks should get to know those victims.

The LWCF was passed with a 25-year-lifespan to sunset in 1989. Of course, Big Green pushed hard and it was renewed for another 25 years.

President Reagan warned us: “A government bureau is the closest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."

Ron Arnold, a Washington Examiner columnist, is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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