Ten years ago, Tom Knudson awakened the West by revealing what had happened in California's Sierra Nevada - John Muir's "Range of Light" and the mountains that inspired the formation of the Sierra Club.
series in the Sacramento Bee showed a Sierra
under siege from five horsemen of a coming apocalypse: logging,
grazing and fire suppression, as well as suburban sprawl and air
pollution in the western foothills of the mighty range.
His articles helped inspire a public outcry,
legislative hearings, a massive scientific study, and finally,
early this year, an about-face in how the United States Forest
Service manages its 18,000 square miles of the range and
"Sierra in Peril" won a
Pulitzer Prize, and Knudson became a hero to environmentalists. He
had moved not just a mountain, but a mountain range. If we
eventually save and restore the Sierra, there should be a monument
some day in Yosemite or near the top of Mount Whitney to Tom
Knudson and to the newspaper that gave him the time to research and
write his series.
Now, 10 years
later, Tom Knudson has again crafted a special series:
"Environment, Inc." This time he devotes five articles in the
Bee to attacking the West's and the nation's
environmental movement as overpaid, overzealous, reckless in its
use of lawsuits, and "chaotic and shrill." His aim is to reform the
environmental movement. But judging by the initial reaction, most
environmentalists see the series as an unfair, simplistic assault
on a diverse, broad movement.
For example, he
attacks the Sierra Club for holding receptions in fancy hotels and
for paying high office rents - for being corporate. In reality, the
Sierra Club is crammed into very modest offices in a seedy part of
San Francisco. Meanwhile, a group he praises, The Nature
Conservancy, occupies high-ceilinged, high-rent quarters in a much
better part of the same city.
In response to
the legitimate charges Knudson makes - the unwarranted lawsuits,
the exaggerated direct-mail letters, the resistance to thinning
trees to prevent fires - environmentalists respond that so long as
the earth and its ocean are warming, species are vanishing, and
forests are being destroyed, we have no choice but to toll the
bells as loudly as we can. We ask why, when there are so many real
problems in the region, is Knudson nit-picking a movement that is
attempting to save the Western United States.
If this were almost any other journalist, we could blow off the
series, dismiss him as a reporter who has lost focus and
perspective. But this is Tom Knudson, and we should pay attention
to what turned him from a journalist who has spent two decades
muckraking environmentalism's enemies to one who is muckraking
Judging by the
emotional content of the series, he is most offended by
environmentalism's end-of-the-world, doomsday rhetoric in millions
of pieces of direct mail. Direct mail is the public face of
environmentalism, and that face, he implies, is often covered with
angry red blotches. The letters, he says, are hysterical,
overstated and at times flat-out wrong. He is next offended by
bloated salaries and fancy offices.
is not all negative. He closes his series with a celebration of
grassroots groups, conservation-minded ranchers, and large
environmental groups, like The Nature Conservancy, who buy land to
Here, Knudson wears his heart on his
sleeve: He wants a pure, close-to-the-earth environmental movement
that protects the land, works cooperatively with rural people, and
is calm and scientific, rather than hysterical in tone and focused
on raising money even if it takes multi-paged, heavily underlined,
Who isn't nostalgic
for the old days? But they are past. Environmentalism in the West
is no longer a puny movement struggling to get the attention of the
American public. For eight years, we sat at the right hand of power
in the Clinton administration, working a revolution. We created
national monuments, we put 91,000 square miles of roadless national
forest off-limits to roading, we created regulations to reform
hardrock mining, we ended dam building and began to talk of pulling
down massive dams.
We had that power because
the American people have bought into environmentalism and Clinton
knew it. Environmentalism has become an important part of how we do
business in the West. It used to be, when I traveled, people would
show me a clear-cut or a new road being gouged through a small
canyon. Now I'm taken to see a stream that a few years before was a
gully, or a wetland that had been a farmed field, or a forest that
has been thinned and de-roaded.
In a brief few
decades, everything in the West has changed except one thing: We in
the environmental movement still see ourselves as a beleaguered
minority fighting against all odds to change the American West.
We fail to accept how deep are the changes we
have wrought. We have forgotten that this president's father ended
underground nuclear testing, vetoed an enormous dam outside Denver,
and signed a law to reform the use of irrigation water in
California's Central Valley. Like Clinton, he advanced an
environmental agenda because he knew the will of the American
Now comes George W. Bush, with his
frontal attack on the roadless initiative, with a plan to build a
power plant a week, and a determination to drill in the Arctic and
in the new national monuments.
In response, we
push panic buttons and act as if he, rather than conservationists,
has the nation and major global trends on his side. To take
advantage of our strengths, we have to act like leaders with broad
responsibilities, rather than a narrowly focused special interest.
We have to fight not just to protect the Arctic and the national
monuments and the Rocky Mountain Front, but to help deal with
society's energy problems. Old plants must be shut down. New plants
and new transmission lines must be built. Efficiency and
conservation must be encouraged.
coming four years, as in the last eight, the major national groups
must sit at the table with the other leaders of the nation. And the
environmentalists must be led by relatively well-paid leaders
backed by professional staffs. The national groups must even behave
in corporate ways: They must be well-organized, have adequate
resources and a sensible, inclusive strategy.
As a first step toward accepting the responsibility of leadership,
we can change our direct-mail letters so they are no longer
red-faced with anger and ugliness. They should be more generous and
should ask for help financing alternatives to litigation and open
conflict. They should acknowledge that most of the West is a
working landscape, and that rural people and rural economies are
necessary to the health and productivity of that landscape. For
these are the allies we need if we are to protect and restore the
It is where success has led us.