Yet even during the Reagan years, D.C. politics were not as polarized as today. The West still had its maverick politicians, like Colorado's Democratic Sen. Hart and Wyoming's Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, who eschewed partisan ideology and enjoyed each other's sly sensibility. There were enough pro-environment Democrats and Republicans in Congress to keep wilderness bills moving and to put up serious fights against efforts to release wild lands for development. In many ways, Reagan and Watt helped: Direct-mail appeals went out from the big environmental groups, and tens of thousands of people wrote checks and enlisted in the cause. They saved much of the old-growth forests and wild lands at risk in Alaska. It was "a whole series of wonderful victories and crushing defeats ... and terrible compromises," Mahoney recalls.
Sease and Mahoney signed on with the Sierra Club and learned how to effectively reach out to that group's huge base (now 1.3 million members) to generate the kind of grassroots pressure that influences Congress in D.C. "You learn how to oppose a bill -- you delay it, you say a lot of shrill things about how catastrophic it will be if it passes, and you win by running out the clock," says Mahoney. "To pass a bill, you examine your political terrain, determine what is achievable, look for a broader coalition. Your whole tone is conciliatory -- you can't beat people into wanting to help you. ... I learned that when you can get a lot, take it. And that other times you have to settle, and come back another day."
Sease had a mentor, California Rep. Phil Burton, who was a legislative sorcerer. A tireless, profane, chain-smoking, hard-drinking liberal with an encyclopedic understanding of his colleagues' districts and what it would take to persuade them, Burton assembled massive public-lands and social assistance bills, shrewdly tweaking details to corral the necessary votes, and then rode roughshod over the opposition. "I just adored the man," Sease says. "He was a master of the politics of pulling things together ... a ruthless politician who believed in children and education and the environment."
Sease had been working, fruitlessly, to get the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande protected as a wild and scenic river. As she made the rounds of congressional offices, "even the staff stood me up," she recalls. It was Burton and his staff who initially helped her organize the grassroots to generate phone calls and letters to other members of Congress, and doors started opening for her. "I suddenly became a powerful lobbyist," she says. The canyons legislation passed.
Adopting a different strategy on the ground in the West, Foreman's new group tried to wrestle control of the Western myth away from the corporate cowboys. Earth First! was an environmentalist guerrilla movement that engaged in political theater, physical resistance and minor acts of sabotage, which were promoted by Abbey's 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Foreman was arrested by federal agents in 1989, accused of inspiring the sabotage of an Arizona power line, and pled guilty to a misdemeanor. He has since taken a more low-key approach. For a time, he served on the Sierra Club board, and now he works for The Rewilding Institute, a project to promote wilderness and biodiversity.
"I think there is a need for every approach, and people have to decide what works best for them," says Foreman. Too often, in his view, environmentalists "make compromises before we even start, to make it palatable. And then during the process we compromise further. And then we pretend it is a big sweeping victory instead of part-defeat. ... We set the bar too low."
Mahoney worked on more than 40 wilderness bills in 36 states and helped protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but then he hit the wall and left the Sierra Club in 1989. "It was too much," he recalls. "Too much pressure. Too much Washington." Recently, he has returned to the Hill as a consultant to campaigns for wilderness, especially in Idaho and Montana. He learned a hard lesson from events in Montana: He turned down a wilderness compromise proffered by Sen. Max Baucus in the mid-1980s and wound up empty-handed. Since then, much of that land has been logged or scarred by roads and development. "We took the all-or-nothing approach" on Baucus' attempt to compromise, Mahoney says. "And we got nothing. My greatest regrets are the times I said no, and found that we didn't do better next year."
Sease climbed in the Sierra Club's ranks, from directing the group's public-lands program to legislative director to her current post as national campaign director. She says her decisions to compromise or resist compromise have been guided by the Sierra Club's membership. "The Sierra Club is, by design, a grassroots organization. Even if my years in Washington led me to want to go along to get along, our grassroots wouldn't let me." She recalls that Baucus' Montana wilderness deal "wasn't good enough, and had some fairly objectionable language," but because it died, some "very, very nice areas are now clear-cut. ... I look back and say, my God, if we had only taken that (deal)."