They know their turf. Often they're all alone in their attempts to rescue public lands from overcutting, overgrazing and overappropriation of scarce water essential to native fish.
In the Northwest, inland from the Cascade
Mountains, environmental activists can't hide behind the anonymity
that big cities provide. They're out there, in ones and twos, a
highly visible minority in isolated communities that live or die by
logging, grazing and farming. Their adversaries stand in line next
to them at the grocery check-out stand. Their allies are hundreds
of miles away.
Tonia Wolf works alone in the
central Oregon town of Prineville to speak for the wildlife and
unlogged old-growth pines of the nearby Ochoco National Forest. One
of the reasons activists east of the Cascades are so committed, she
says, is that they see themselves as the only line of defense
against exploitation of public lands.
only one doing this on the Ochoco. If I leave it, it will die." Not
just the campaign, she means, the forest
Melodramatic, somewhat desperate, but the
sentiment is echoed by Susan Prince of the Bend-based Central
Oregon Forest Issues Committee: "You feel like if you walk away,
they'll cut it all down."
Still, Wolf says, if
she isn't talking to a reporter on the environment beat, her life
in a rural community generally requires avoidance of inflammatory
rhetoric. "You're more circumspect. I'm really aware of the
consequences of the requests that I make. I have to keep checking
my position to make sure I'm not on some self-indulgent trip."
To be effective, Eastside forest activists get
out in the field, making forest managers look at consequences of
From her base in Walla Walla,
Wash., for instance, Judith Johnson directs the National Audubon
Society's Eastside Adopt-a-Forest program. She organized a
successful partnership project with the U.S. Forest Service that
enlisted environmentalists to conduct the first-ever inventory of
old-growth forests east of the Cascades.
project revealed that the national forests of the Eastside had
significantly less old growth in dedicated old-growth areas than
the agency had estimated - 20 percent to 50 percent less, depending
on the forest. In some cases, areas marked as old-growth reserves
in forest plans had been logged years
Those findings, combined with other
research and threats of a lawsuit, spurred the Forest Service to
study eastside forest health and sharply reduce logging until a new
Eastside ecosystem plan is developed and in
Grass-roots environmentalists like Wolf
and Prince are now monitoring each proposed timber sale to make
sure stringent standards known as "screens' are
"Our people have been on every unit of
every sale," Johnson says. "We've walked the ground. It's been an
education for the ranger district people. They've had to walk these
units too, and suddenly they've had to focus on old growth,
riparian zones and wildlife. The whole process has enabled Forest
Service employees to do their jobs better."
Working face-to-face with officials and
opponents, instead of interacting by long-distance mail or phones
or legal pleadings, sometimes leads to an atmosphere of fear that
has to be conquered, says Jere Payton of Oroville,
Payton is an out-front environmentalist who
monitors the Okanogan, a forest abutting the Canadian border, where
roadless areas contain some of the last chunks of wilderness large
enough to support wolves and grizzlies. Pushing for habitat
protection, she's been the target of an intimidation campaign waged
by the wise-use movement, which locally is in full battle dress
supporting logging and grazing and a controversial proposed gold
The campaign against Payton has included
verbal death threats and a fax alert that drew 152 of her opponents
to a meeting where she and local officials discussed her proposal
for an international park. There has also been an orchestrated
effort to deny Payton meeting space in public buildings. Local
wise-use groups have boasted of victories in their
"I admire my neighbors and like
them," says Payton, who has lived in Okanogan County for 20 years.
"However, my neighbors have been radicalized by their trade press,
which paints (all environmentalists) as radicals." She says
wise-use propaganda tells her neighbors "we're trying to steal
their children's future."
The intimidation took
different shape elsewhere in northeastern Washington. Two activists
discovered loosened lug nuts on their car as they headed into a
snowstorm, and a school board was pressured to remove two teachers
from their classrooms because they espoused environmental causes.
(One teacher was Payton's husband.)
activists and outside experts came together in Okanogan County in
late August to discuss survival and coalition-building strategies.
"We're talking about folks who were already
isolated in their communities," said Tarsa Ramos of the Western
States Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides technical
assistance to progressive grass-roots groups. "All this is
combining to create an atmosphere of social sanctions for
intimidation, harassment, even violence against environmental