WASHINGTON, D.C. - "Next Generation of Environmental Activists Storm Capitol Hill for Arctic Protection," proclaimed the headline of a news release disseminated to the world early this month by the Sierra Club.


It was, explained the text, "a blizzard of congressional visits," in which "150 students from across the nation descended upon Washington today to lobby and ..."


Wait a minute, wait a minute, WAIT A MINUTE, as the late, great political analyst Jack Benny might have said. One hundred fifty students do not "storm" anything, and they resemble a flurry more than a blizzard. Do not hire the Sierra Club flacks as your weather analysts.


But at least the Sierra Club didn't call Gale Norton's confirmation as Interior Secretary "a victory for all environmentalists." Wilderness Society President William Meadows did, even though he had opposed her.


Let us be charitable. Such behavior is standard operating procedure in Washington, where some unknown tyrant once decreed that all events must be exaggerated and all defeats labeled victories. There's nothing new about that.


What is new is that the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society are in disarray. They are flummoxed. They know not whether they cometh or goeth. Nor do the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, the Audubon Society, and the League of Conservation Voters. The entire environmental movement is a-muddle.


"It is a new world," says Scott Stoermer of the League of Conservation Voters. "We're trying to get our bearings."

Out in the cold

It may take a while. These folks are in uncharted territory. For decades, at least one of Washington's houses - Senate, Representatives, or White - has offered succor to conservationists in distress. Even when they couldn't get what they wanted, they could block what they hated. If a committee chairman would not bottle up an objectionable proposal, a president would veto it.


Not now. On many issues, environmentalists are like homeless waifs in a Dickens novel, wandering the streets cold and hungry, gazing enviously through the windows of cozy homes of well-fed burghers, not one of whom will invite them to sit by the fire and have a spot of tea. Not the chairmen of the congressional Resource Committees. Not Norton. Not President George W. Bush or his senior White House advisors.


Well, maybe Christine Whitman. Just as environmentalists were accepting their plight, along came the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to say that the Bush administration will push for tougher air pollution laws, even limiting carbon dioxide emissions. She even accepts the reality of global warming, as do the secretaries of State and the Treasury. In fact, by mid-March, the Big News (it was in the New York Times) was that business lobbyists were grumbling that the Bush administration was too green.


Whereupon Bush cut Whitman's legs out from under her. The president said in a letter to Republican senators, he wouldn't seek "mandatory reduction targets for emissions of four main pollutants," including carbon dioxide, though such had been the words from his campaign speeches that Whitman had been citing. Industry griped, and now carbon dioxide, the big global warmer, is out.


More confusion and another mood shift were not what the doctor ordered. Like many others, environmentalists had convinced themselves in January that Bush, mandate-less after losing the popular vote and with tiny congressional majorities, would govern as a moderate. By mid-February, they were getting over this delusion.

"A very scary time"

The low point came not over an environmental matter, but on the vote to overturn the Clinton administration's workplace rules on ergonomics. Even the moderate Northeastern Republicans voted with their party's leadership, while several Democrats broke with theirs, just the opposite of what environmentalists hope for when it comes to votes on their issues.


"That vote was insidious because of what it portends procedurally," acknowledges a senior official of one of the green groups. "If they could reverse that rule, they can try to reverse the Clinton environmental rules."


Then came Whitman's more agreeable statements, followed by her political defenestration, forcing environmental advocates to reconsider their reconsideration and then reconsider again. Skepticism abounded. "In the budget, they've proposed cuts for the EPA," says the Sierra Club's Deanna White, who worries that the administration might talk a good game on air pollution but actually weaken the standards.


But others in the green movement were ready to give the Bushies the benefit of the doubt, and even to see a silver lining in their political cloud.


"We've gotten a little soft," said a political strategist for one of the environmental groups. "Now we know we have to be much more aggressive, smarter, more flexible. We have to take a closer look at who our friends are, regardless of party labels."


Though he calls this a "very scary time," Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope is less worried about what can go wrong than about what will not go right. "When it comes to the environment, you have to govern from the middle," Pope says, taking note of the large majorities who support environmental protection. "Newt Gingrich discovered this in the '90s, Ronald Reagan discovered it in the '80s, and if Bush has to learn it again now, we'll teach him."


As evidence, Pope notes that when Melanie Griffin of the Sierra Club's Washington office appeared on Oliver North's radio program one recent morning, 64 percent of North's conservative listeners opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A combination of political and economic reality - the failure of California's electricity deregulation, for instance - will doom any anti-environmental "counter-revolution," Pope said. But he acknowledged that defeating that counter-revolution will divert time, energy and money from dealing with climate change, habitat fragmentation and the spread of toxics. "What I fear," he said, "is stagnation."


Perhaps he should also fear diversion. The Bushies are no dopes. If, despite this embarrassment over carbon dioxide, they can convince the electorate that they are committed to improving air and water quality, they inoculate themselves against the charge of anti-environmentalism.


Voters like open space and wilderness preservation, too, but these concerns are less central. As long as an administration can stay away from the anti-environmental label, it might be able to open a lot of public land - though probably not the Arctic refuge - to oil drills, chain saws, and all-terrain vehicles. In this democracy, even majority support is no guarantee of success.


Without at least a few friends in high places, life in these parts can be bewildering indeed.

Jon Margolis keeps a watch over Dickensian Washington, D.C., from the warmth of Barton, Vermont.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Margolis