Tom Evans’ conservation legacy forged through consensus
Former Republican Congressman Tom Evans sipped brandies in Richard Nixon’s den during a private fireside chat. He bet on the ponies with Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. He broke party ranks to bring one of Jimmy Carter’s energy bills to the floor. When he heard former Attorney General John Mitchell had spent all his money on his Watergate defense lawyers, he asked a friend to hire Mitchell as a consultant at $5,000 a month – equal to more than $26,000 a month today.
National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara called the Delaware Republican “one of the most nonpartisan politicians I’ve ever met.”
Conservationists say Evans’ friendships were pivotal in the passage of a law that protected almost 2,700 miles of shoreline and probably saved lives and homes this hurricane season. The New York Times called it a “magic formula” and “the most important environmental law nobody has even heard of.”
The original bill got a bump up because Evans, co-chair of the Republican National Committee during the Nixon years, was chummy enough with then-new President Ronald Reagan and Chief of State Ed Meese to have a sit-down with them.
By the end of the conversation, Reagan picked up the phone and told Secretary of the Interior Jim Watts to back the bill.
The Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982, midwifed by Evans and the late Sen. John H. Chaffee of Rhode Island, allows anyone to build anything on 3.5 million acres of fragile seaside property, but it forces them to pick up the check – no federal flood insurance, no federal funds for roads or utilities and no federal bailouts after landfalling hurricanes.
Or, as Evans, 85, puts it, “Do it on your own nickel and not the American taxpayer’s.”
“Some people don’t understand wetlands are very important in flood control,” Evans said. “They are exactly like a sponge, and, if we had not destroyed so many of them, Katrina, for example, would have been much less harmful. The same thing is true in Houston. The same thing is true in Puerto Rico. They’re not going to stop the water, but they’re going to make it a lot less harmful.”
This year’s four hurricanes caused 103 deaths and an estimated $200 billion in damage, and the season has seven weeks to go. Conservationists said the storms would have caused billions of dollars worth of additional damage if there were no Coastal Barrier Resources Act.
“It’s one of the most important acts since 1980 to conserve habitat, protect communities and keep people out of harm’s way,” O’Mara said.
Of Evans, O’Mara said, “I would put him in the top 15 to 20 members of Congress in history in terms of working on environmentalist issues.”
The act, which protects a ribbon of land from Maine to Florida, isn’t even Evan’s most important piece of conservation legislation. He was a key player in the passage of the Alaska Lands Act, a Carter administration initiative that protected more than 157 million acres of coveted wild rivers, national parks, conservation acreage, recreational areas, wildlife refuges and national forests.
Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, put it this way: “Tom has the ability to posit an issue in a manner that people can relate to. He says to one person that it will save the taxpayers money. Then other people might be commercial fishermen or people who are interested in eco-tourism. He’s able to relate it to all those folks. He’s good at it. He’s really good at it. People who have natural political ability can do that kind of thing.”
Earlier attempts to save the coastline belly-flopped. Slowly and steadily, Chaffee and Evans formed a coalition of disparate groups and focused on their individual sweet spots -the Red Cross hoping to save lives, the Taxpayer’s Union hoping to save money, hunters, fishermen, conservation groups hoping to save fragile lands.
“People now focus on how it was almost unanimously supported in Congress, but that was at the end of five or six years it took to get there,” Fuller said. “It took a lot of work. Tom’s a very good communicator. He’s pretty darn good at working the aisle.”
“Chaffee and Evans were able to craft a bill that appeals to very different groups on both sides of the aisle,” said David Salvesen of the University of North Carolina’s Institute for the Environment. “˜That was back when it was OK to be Republican and in support of conservation.”
The GOP “˜wasn’t always this way’
Evans, no fan of President Trump, prefers the Republican Party of Teddy Roosevelt, who was dubbed “the conservationist president,” and Dwight Eisenhower, who protected more than 19 million acres for wildlife.
“I find it very difficult to vote for a Republican these days,” Evans said.
Then, making a reference to his wife of 56 years, the artist and Democrat Mary Page Evans, he said, “Everybody thinks Mary Page has changed me. She hasn’t at all. It’s the Republican Party that changed. There are many issues that I think are very important to this country and to the world, and one of them is the environment and the value of our natural resources. God bequeathed them to us, and I think we should
“I want to show people that the Republican Party wasn’t always this way,” Evans said. “We had a great legacy beginning with Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Conservation is a conservative thing to do, in my opinion.”
Thirty-five years after the act’s passage, he’s still attending hearings to keep it intact.
Pressure from developers has led Congress to pass exemption bills that exclude some areas from the law.
Some wealthy homeowners have built within the coastal barrier on their own dime, paying for streets and water lines privately and paying private flood insurance rates that the GAO estimates are 55 percent to
60 percent higher than federal rates.
A few states run roads to areas feds won’t, although Delaware requires state agencies to consider the potential impact of climate change before installing a road.
And, next year, the map lines will be drawn digitally rather than with the original felt-tip pens, so acreage on the borderline may wind up in or out, including parcels near Bethany Beach.
Michael Powell, DNREC’s flood program manager, said the act hasn’t prevented development along the privately owned acres in Delaware’s coastal barrier, but it has shifted costs away from the federal government.
Salvesen, whose 2004 doctoral dissertation focused on the act, has just begun a two-year National Science Foundation study of the act’s effectiveness over the past 35 years.
“It hasn’t really stopped development, but it has delayed it,” he said. “It made development in those areas more expensive. The vast majority of the units have remained undeveloped, so you can say it’s been tremendously successful. The question is whether they would have remained undeveloped anyway because they’re too small, too narrow, too low-lying.
“But,” Salversen said, “If you go back to the original purpose of the act, which was to minimize loss of life, reduce wasteful expenditure of federal tax dollars and protect fish and wildlife and other natural resources, I think it’s done a marvelous job of achieving those objectives.”
Evans still has a to-do list in the back of his mind:
“We could extend the Coastal Barrier Resources Act to the West Coast and to areas on the interior that are subject to flooding,” he said. “We didn’t do that because we didn’t want to jeopardize what we had. It doesn’t make sense to have encouragement from the federal government to build in storm-prone, vulnerable areas. It’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime, though.”