Upstarts today are establishment soon

  Dear HCN,

Rifts like the one in the Northwest environmental community described in Kathie Durbin's article (HCN, 12/27/93) are often portrayed as moral questions: hardliners vs. sellouts or realists vs. idealists. In fact, these splits are perfectly predictable given the rules of the political game.

Organizations such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society work on many issues. Their ability to achieve their goal on any one issue depends on their reputation as a willing negotiator. If they take the hard line on every issue, no one in Congress or the administration will deal with them.

But local organizations are often based on single issues, such as protection of a single roadless area, watershed or endangered species. For them, there is no "next time': The roadless area, watershed, or species is either saved or it isn't. So they have no incentive to compromise.

This difference in incentives leads to a natural split in the environmental community. Local groups see compromise of their goals as a sell-out; nationals see compromise as a reasonable way to gain the most in the long run.

There is even some organizational benefit to accusing the national groups of being sell-outs, as Dave Foreman discovered when he started Earth First! Ten years ago, the leading characters in Durbin's article, James Monteith and Andy Kerr, led one of those outside groups, the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC). Accusing national groups of selling out their interests, ONRC rapidly grew to its current status as the largest statewide environmental group in the West.

Ironically, this turned ONRC into an established group with a motivation to occasionally compromise. Kerr, the consummate politician, was more comfortable in the role of insider than Monteith, the visionary. Eventually, Monteith left ONRC and started Save the West.

In doing so, he is again the outsider who saves the forests by being more radical than everyone else. The first person he has to be more radical than is Andy Kerr, who is now the leading political tactician for the ancient forests.

So we need to judge the Northwest debate on broader criteria than whether the environmental movement is willing to "draw a line in the sand." The real question is whether environmental groups have the power, as Monteith imagines, to stop the combined forces of the timber industry, Western congressional delegations, and the administration; or whether, as Kerr thinks, a small compromise today will lead to greater savings of old growth tomorrow.

Randal O'Toole

Oak Grove, Oregon