GASP! Some greens are grinning


Most environmentalists would agree they have a hard time throwing a party. They are not a group prone to wild optimism and loud hoorays; development pressures in the West usually make the future look too bleak. Yet some say there's much to celebrate as 1999 comes to a close.

At the top of most lists is Clinton's roadless initiative, which looks at protecting at least 40 million acres of national forest from chainsaws and bulldozers (HCN, 11/8/99). "This is a huge victory; it's massive," says Idaho Conservation League's John McCarthy. "Roadless areas will no longer be seen as just the next part of the production line. We will finally have to stop going deeper into our forests."

Other things that cheer environmentalists:

* Over 5,000 people in Washington donated an average of $900 to protect the Loomis State Forest from logging, yet 99 percent of those donors had never seen the wilderness lands in question (HCN, 3/29/99). "That speaks volumes about how the public values forests," says Loomis Forest Fund director Fred Munson. It also reflects increased public involvement in the environmental movement, Munson says.

* Edwards Dam in Maine came down this year; Washington's Condit Dam is scheduled for demolition in 2006 (HCN, 10/11/99); and two hydroplants on Arizona's Fossil Creek will be decommissioned (HCN,11/22/99). "This year we finally put dam removal on the table of political debate," says longtime environmental activist Andy Kerr in Oregon. "That this is even being talked about is highly significant, when for years many people defined success as pouring concrete."

* The last hope of hardrock mining in Montana's Rocky Mountain Front disappeared when Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck banned new mining claims (HCN, 2/15/99). The past year is also the first in which the mining industry had to report waste under the Environmental Protection Agency's toxic-release inventory. "The mining industry is a titanic producer of waste," says Alan Septoff of the Mineral Policy Center. "It will now be abundantly clear how damaging hardrock mining is."

* In Utah, 5.7 million acres of public lands received a wilderness stamp of approval last February, when the BLM accepted a proposal submitted by conservation groups (HCN, 2/15/99). This decision was precedent-setting, says Heidi McIntosh of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "This raises the stakes; no longer can people cast a sidelong glance at citizens' proposals," she says. Now, SUWA hopes that 3.4 million acres more will be added.

Many environmentalists say successes in 1999 can also be measured by what didn't happen. This marked the first year since Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 that activists eliminated anti-green riders on spending bills.

Some say the strong economy awakened latent public concern for the environment. When people worry less about money, they have time to care about endangered species, says Forest Service watchdog Andy Stahl.

A national poll conducted by the League of Conservation Voters in September found that 83 percent of likely voters think environmental protection should be a top priority for presidential candidates.

"Clinton didn't create his roadless plan out of conviction," says McCarthy. "He did it out of polling."

Republicans in Congress read these same polls, and "they're scared to death of losing the House in next year's election," says Stahl. "The environment is now amid the top three issues that politicians consider."

Still, 1999 left plenty for greens to worry about: grizzly bears are still struggling to survive, coal-bed methane wells are sprouting like dandelions in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and sprawl continues to consume the West's open lands. Despite a more progressive national attitude, grassroots groups say they're still wrangling with local politicians. From their perspective, the battle remains uphill and lengthy.

* Rebecca Clarren, HCN assistant editor