Note: This note was written by Laura Jane Gifford, an adjunct professor of politics at George Fox University.
I was saddened to learn that former federal tax court judge, Nixon administration official and president and CEO of the World Wildlife Federation Russell Train died last week at the age of 92.
No, none of those job titles are typos. And yes, he was a member of Nixon’s party as well as his administration.
In this era of fractious political disagreements—disagreements that threaten to create an ever-widening chasm in place of the historically fertile grounds of compromise—it is easy to forget that men like Russell Train once existed. Train’s interest in environmentalism stemmed from his experiences on African safari in the 1950s and grew to encompass a strong conservationist ethic. Channeling the gospels of efficiency and expertise that characterized his Progressive Republican forebears, Train began by helping to create the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, charged with training postcolonial Africans to professionally manage their wildlife resources; by 1965 he felt sufficiently committed to the conservationist cause to resign his position as a judge and become head of the Conservation Foundation. As his biographer Brooks Flippen put it, “He did not share the attire—or the youth—of many of the new environmentalists but, like them, questioned traditional assumptions. He may not have recognized it at the time but he stood at the fore of a revolution in American attitudes.”
Train believed in conservation; he was also profoundly pragmatic. Placed in charge of a transition team researching environmental policy, Train discovered he’d been seated next to the incoming president at a dinner a few days before Nixon’s inauguration. He seized his opportunity to make a case for the environment in terms he knew Nixon would find compelling. “I knew I couldn’t talk him into becoming an instant environmentalist,” Train recollected, “but it seemed entirely possible that he could become an effective proponent of environmental programs if it seemed to him good politics to do so. I have never for a moment doubted the wisdom of that decision.” Train spoke of how environmental issues touched a broad spectrum of the electorate, about how they could serve as a unifying issue in their era’s fractious political climate. “Quality of life” issues, he convinced the new president, were important—and politically advantageous.
The years of the Nixon administration, then, were also the years of the Clean Air and Water Acts, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and governmental cooperation in observation of the first Earth Day. Train worked in the administration as Under Secretary of the Interior, in the executive office and then as head of the Environmental Policy Agency, a role in which he continued under Gerald Ford. Train did not always find administrations hospitable to his plans; following the 1972 election, in particular, Nixon soured somewhat on environmentalism’s political possibilities and the energy crisis began to overshadow other efforts. Still, Train described himself as a “moderate conservative,” committed to working within his party and his ideological framework for environmental protection. His commitment displays the potential that existed in the 1970s for Republican—even conservative Republican—political philosophy to follow an environmental track. “To my mind,” he explained, “to oppose environmental protection is not to be truly conservative. To put short-term financial gain ahead of the long-term health of the environment is a fundamentally radical policy, as well as being unethical. Conservation, which is essentially no more and no less than protection of the natural capital with which we have been endowed, should be seen as truly conservative.”
Today, the lines between left and right have become more firmly drawn—and environmentalism appears squarely on the left. This was an outcome with which Train was profoundly unhappy. Torn between loyalty and irritation during the Reagan years, he preferred to remain aloof from politics, prompting criticism from other environmental leaders. Train found his longtime friendship with George H. W. Bush strained when, already concerned by the “mystifying and frustrating” ascendancy of neoconservative positions during Bush senior’s time in office, he felt compelled to speak out in opposition to George W. Bush’s environmental policy in the early 2000s.
Train was as proud of his religious legacy as he was of his Republican heritage. Train was a leader in St. John’s Episcopal Church on Washington’s Lafayette Square, following in the footsteps of his father. His worldview was shaped by his faith, leading him to articulate a profoundly humane conception of environmental protection’s importance. “We don’t really have the option of not paying pollution costs at all,” he reflected. “The only question is in what form we pay them—in higher electricity bills or in higher doctor bills and higher rates of mortality and morbidity.”
Thoughtful Christians can reach very different conclusions regarding how we should serve as stewards of God’s creation. Train’s life prompts careful reflection, however, upon the dichotomies we so often construct. “Conservation” does, after all, share a root with “conservative.” “Republican” need not sit in opposition with “environmentalist” (and “Democrat” is not necessarily an equivalent term). Train thought deeply and acted intentionally across boundaries. Our own careful consideration might illuminate new opportunities for enlightened stewardship.
 J. Brooks Flippen, Conservative Conservationist: Russell E. Train and the Emergence of American Environmentalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 6.
 Russell E. Train, Politics, Pollution and Pandas: An Environmental Memoir (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003), 10.
 Train, xi, xiii, 332.
 Flippen, 10.
 Train, 189-90.