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Photo of Martha Marks
A Voice in the Wilderness

by Elizabeth Royte

Martha Marks is the founder of a Republican environmental group. No, really.

Once upon a time, says Martha Marks, the Republican Party was seen as a party of conservation. After all, it was Abe Lincoln who set aside the first parcel of what would later become Yosemite National Park. Ulysses S. Grant protected the land that became Yellowstone. Everyone knows about Teddy Roosevelt -- among other good deeds, he signed the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which preserved the Grand Canyon. Calvin Coolidge protected Glacier Bay; Dwight Eisenhower took the first steps toward setting aside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And with strong bipartisan support, Richard Nixon in the 1970s signed many of the defining laws of the environmental movement: the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

"It's our heritage," says Marks, the founder and president of Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP America), "and the party has just thrown it away." Today's voters have little awareness of Republicans as anything other than the "brown" party.

When I first meet Marks, who has broad cheekbones, short side-parted hair, and cat-slanted eyes, I'm struck by her physical resemblance to Laura Bush. But as soon as she opens her mouth, I realize that appearances are deceptive. Beneath the placid exterior of a former midwestern professor of Spanish beats the heart of a rebel -- an unreservedly outspoken woman fed up with her lifelong political party and determined to change it from within. Considering her zeal for politics, it's surprising to learn that Marks, 58, is fairly new to the game.

It was a bulldozer that first drew her in. In 1991, Marks was living with her husband, Bernie, in Riverwoods, Illinois, a bosky, affluent community north of Chicago, when she learned that the 100-year-old Thorngate Golf Course had been targeted for development. "It was a very beautiful course, with ancient oaks and fields of wildflowers," says Marks. "I started researching why the county would rezone this land for development." Poring over campaign contribution disclosures, she discovered that builders had been making big donations and that some local citizens' organizations and "good government" groups were actually fronts for developers. "I was pathetically naïve," Marks says of her former self. "I didn't know how payoffs worked. I thought government was wise and always did the right thing."

Marks, in stocking feet, is curled on an easy chair in the spacious living room of her adobe-style house, which tops a juniper-dotted hillside outside Santa Fe. The room is adorned with her photographs of birds and her husband's watercolor paintings. She and Bernie, who still commutes to his advertising and marketing agency in Chicago, only recently moved here, unapologetically lured by all the usual Santa Fe clichés: the big, blue sky, the southwestern architecture, the quirky restaurants and shops. She's as crazy for the place as she was the first time she visited, as a tourist.

Marks brings me back to Lake County, Illinois, circa 1991, when a seat opened on the county commission. "Fingers kept pointing at me," says Marks. "I'd just retired from teaching Spanish, I had no kids, I was passionate." Undaunted by her unfamiliarity with the political system (she didn't even know what a precinct was), she agreed to run. Campaigning on a conservation platform, she won her first election by a margin of 44 percent. Her message was pro-environment and fiscally conservative. The combination was so appealing that voters kept her in office for 10 years.

In 1995, Marks attended her first national environmental conference, held in Maryland, on threats to the Endangered Species Act. "I'd been hanging out in wildlife refuges doing my photography," she says. "The Republicans had taken over the House and Senate, and I thought, 'Yeah, that's a good thing.' " Then Marks, like many other moderate Republicans, began to reconsider Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. "It was a property-rights movement," she says. "It was the same thing I'd seen in Lake County, where prodevelopment factions said we were taking land off the tax rolls and wasting taxpayer money on swamps."

At the workshop, Marks fell in with Kim O'Keefe, a stockbroker from Florida, and Aurie Kryzuda, a grassroots organizer from San Diego who, like Marks, was battling local developers. They agreed it was a particularly awful time to be a pro-environment Republican. The GOP held both houses of Congress, but 55 percent of polled Republican voters said they didn't trust their party to do the right thing when it came to the environment. "We decided we needed to organize a Republican group because our party had begun to think that if you're an environmentalist you're a liberal wacko, and they write you off."

The "wacko" line, which she picked up from Rush Limbaugh (to whom her mother listens religiously, much to Marks's chagrin), makes it into nearly every Marks speech. It's not that she really sees environmentalists that way, but talk of wackos puts some Republican constituents at ease.

Hunting for Red Gold
A Hopi Thirst

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Elizabeth Royte's second book, Garbageland: On the Secret Trail of Trash, will be published in spring 2005 by Little, Brown.

Photo: Jamey Stillings

OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council