When environmentalists needed somebody to stand in front of the cameras on the U.S. Capitol lawn last summer, to connect BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Debbie Sease got the call.
The veteran Sierra Club lobbyist -- flanked by two U.S. senators and a House committee chairman -- delivered the day's winning sound bite: "Today we see an ocean burning. We need no further evidence that drilling is dangerous."
It was a typical appearance for Sease, a self-described "desert rat" from New Mexico. In this town of titanic egos, a place that former Colorado Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder called "the Planet of the Guys," Sease has worked for 30-some years on behalf of land and water, air quality and critters. Today, the 62-year-old is one of the most influential conservationists you've probably never heard of.
Since Sease came to D.C. in the 1970s, with a cadre of brash young Western environmentalists who shared a fierce and romantic attachment to Western landscapes, most of the others have burned out or fled -- casualties of D.C.'s hard ways. The skills Sease learned and the toughness she developed in the West, as a polio-stricken kid who became a wilderness guide and an avid kayaker, have helped her survive here. She has a gift for keeping her cool while navigating turbulent political currents. As a result, she's helped pass federal laws preserving millions of acres of Western wilderness and national parks, sheltering wild rivers and protecting air quality. Her job, she says, is "immensely satisfying."
A few right-wing bloggers predictably condemn her as a "socialist" and a "communist," while Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., praises her: "She doesn't have a flashy style ... (she's just) dedicated herself, for a long time, to understanding Washington and how it works so she can get things done."
The capital has a way of ensnaring those who relish power and delight in the tricks of the game. Sease has weathered huge changes in the environmental movement and the D.C. ecosystem, suffered the breakup of her marriage to a famous environmental activist -- Dave Foreman, a founder of Earth First! -- and sacrificed some of her Western identity. She's determined to stick with it, even though her job is now more difficult than ever.
Sease grew up in a series of New Mexico towns, for the most part in Las Cruces and Roswell, in the state's stark southern desert. Her dad, David, who worked for the Farmers Home Administration helping ranchers get loans, liked to take his kids camping, hunting and fishing. Because she had polio, he carried her "piggyback," she recalls, "through a lot of wild country." She recovered from the disease, though there are some lasting effects, and studied architecture at the University of New Mexico. She began volunteering as a wilderness activist and then took a job with a group called the University of the Wilderness. It gave her the chance to help lead river trips through the Rio Grande's Big Bend country and other wild areas -- and launched her career as an environmentalist.
She met Foreman while he was also attending the university in Albuquerque. He was an Eagle Scout and military brat whose father's career as an Air Force pilot had taken the family all over the West. She helped fuel his environmentalism by giving him a copy of Edward Abbey's 1968 literary rage, Desert Solitaire. By the time they married in 1975, they'd already made their first trips to D.C. and were learning to lobby and testify in Congress.
In 1978, Celia Hunter, an Alaskan who was running The Wilderness Society, was looking for wild cards. Hunter summoned Sease and Foreman, along with Tim Mahoney, an activist in Denver, to work in D.C. They came wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats, with a liking for country music and enchiladas. They styled themselves as buckaroos, Foreman says, and the run-down rental in which they lived was christened "the Buckaroo Bunkhouse." It was, Sease recalls, a "rickety ... dirt cheap ... chartreuse ... flophouse" with a "wretched little kitchen," in Rosslyn, Va., a soulless zip code on a bluff across the Potomac River from D.C. They networked with various Western compadres who crashed with them while visiting D.C., including Bart Koehler, who's now based in Alaska and still working for The Wilderness Society. Back then, Koehler wore a "rodeo-star-sized belt buckle with a grizzly bear on it" and had "howling coyotes on his red power tie," according to Susan Zakin's 1993 book, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement.
"I was only going to be here for a year," Sease says. "I didn't unpack my boxes." It was a point of honor to reject the capital's serious button-down style. "We were a fairly rowdy bunch," says Mahoney, a "failed graduate student" with New Hampshire roots who had roamed the Rocky Mountains fighting mining, clear-cutting and drilling. "We had brought our buckaroo mentality along. We were hard-drinking, hard-partying people -- viewed as kind of crude by some of our senior colleagues, and endearing to others. We probably looked a trifle roughhewn on the Hill."
At that time, the modern era in Western environmentalism was just getting into gear in D.C. During the 1950s and 1960s, the discussion focused on water, and Western boosters -- Democrats like Colorado Rep. Wayne Aspinall and Arizona Sen. Carl Hayden and Republicans like Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins -- worked together to build massive dams to harness rivers for hydropower and the region's thirsty, growing cities. The close-knit Western delegations socialized with the representatives of industries, including staging lectures on Wild West lore. It was all genteel and bipartisan, even as environmental groups struggled to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon and other totemic sites.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 and the first Earth Day protest in 1970 signaled a dawning environmental awareness. Realizing that industrial impacts and increasing population threatened many of the region's qualities, Westerners elected a new breed of greenish leaders, typified by Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm and Sen. Gary Hart. During the 1970s, Congress worked with Republican President Richard Nixon and Democratic President Jimmy Carter to pass more major environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act.
D.C. activists like Sease, Foreman and Mahoney shifted from battling dam proposals to proactively preserving wild lands, streams and old-growth forests. The Wilderness Act launched a process in which the Forest Service and other agencies surveyed their holdings to see what qualified for protection. The wilderness buckaroos were given the task of working with sympathetic officials in the Carter administration, and with other environmental groups, to help persuade Congress to save those lands. Sease reveled in the challenge. She was learning from experience and from some mentors -- aware that she was a part of historic changes.