On any given day she might be meeting with members of Congress or administration officials, organizing a new Sierra Club campaign on coal mining or offshore drilling, giving strategic advice to the club's volunteers, answering questions on a C-Span talk show, or dishing up tangy sound bites to journalists, like the time she accurately predicted that Bush's nominee to lead Interior, Gale Norton, would turn out to be "James Watt in a skirt."
Everything in D.C. environmentalism has gotten bigger, more bureaucratic, and more rushed. "These days, a lot of our time as environmentalists we spend meeting with ourselves," she says. When they do get access to a member of Congress, or a high-ranking Interior official, they "meet in herds." The technological advances have "changed the pace." In the old days, "we used snail mail to contact our (Sierra Club) members and planned extensive alerts that had to be mailed three weeks in advance." Now, with email and cell phones, "there is an immediacy." She also regularly does conference calls with Sierra Club organizers around the country, and sometimes has hundreds of staffers and volunteers linked in a call and watching a simultaneous website presentation -- tracking the progress of a bill in Congress, for instance, so the grassroots will be informed and exert pressure on the decision-makers.
The Sierra Club's emphasis on the grassroots prevents her from becoming jaded and keeps her on her toes, she says. Most big lobbying interests now employ specialized contractors to send out their direct-mail and email blasts, and so, from time to time, does the Sierra Club. But generally, "except for the very high-tech stuff, we tend to do it ourselves," she says. There is a tradition that even top Sierra Club staffers leave work with lists of phone numbers, to call the group's volunteers and activists in the evening.
Her job also requires a certain amount of social mixing at after-hours fund-raisers and receptions. "You go in, pass your card around and schmooze," she says. "Networking is not one of my favorite things. I used to enjoy the parties more, but now they feel like work."
Sease has to have a tough skin. One of her regular opponents, Sen, James Inhofe, R-Okla., has called Sierra Club politicking -- Sease's specialty -- "environmental thuggery" and "trickery." The libertarian American Enterprise Institute charged that the group's stands against President Bush -- orchestrated by Sease -- were merely "eco-hysteria." Even the liberal blog Daily Kos once called the group's political strategy moronic.
For an escape from D.C. and a touch of the wild, Sease and her husband retreat to their cabin in the Shenandoah Valley, a few hours' drive from D.C., where they can smell the honeysuckle and listen to the owls and the tree frogs and cicadas. She's also taken up whitewater kayaking on mid-Atlantic rivers with very unWestern names, like the Potomac and the Youghiogheny.
Sease mourns one endangered D.C. species -- the Teddy Roosevelt-style Republicans, who shared that president's commitment to conservation. The current razor-sharp partisan edge makes it much harder to assemble bipartisan coalitions. Gone are the days when Westerners in Congress "viewed themselves as Westerners before they saw themselves as Democrats or Republicans," she says.
She spent much of 2009-2010 trying to persuade Congress to take meaningful action on climate change. In response, Republicans cited those efforts in their election campaigns last fall as an example of big government run amok, and won control of the House of Representatives. Now the right-wing Republicans in the House are "trying to cut everything environmental -- as if they did a Word search for 'environment.' They're cutting budgets for monitoring and protection of endangered species, zeroing out the Land and Water Conservation Fund, putting policy riders on bills saying we can't study wilderness -- literally hundreds of (anti-environmental) riders."
Experience has taught her that "the environmental community does some of its best work on defense," but what are they defending now in D.C.? "Everything." So she's worried."We're going directly to the public to expose what's happening," trying to get the Senate "riled up," or asking President Barack Obama to veto bad bills. "I'm the kind of person, on a day-to-day basis, I'm fairly optimistic," she says. But the current onslaught has her tempering that description: "I'm a short-term optimist, but long-term I'm pessimistic. We're going to experience great impacts from climate change before the public gets stimulated (on that issue), and then it might be too late. Everything that has been done in terms of protecting wild rivers, wilderness areas -- if you don't get a hand on climate, it's going to ... destroy wilderness just as surely as a bulldozer."
These days, she can imagine a shoreline and a landing on her career horizon, but she doesn't know whether she'll move back to the West when she retires. She sees that the region's wildness overall has deteriorated, probably more clearly than someone who never left. She remembers when the night sky between Texas and California was, but for a few urban archipelagoes, unmarred by the glare of Exxon stations, Days Inns and casinos; she sees how the valleys are being carved by subdivisions, the foothills peppered with vacation homes, as the region has grown by 30 million people since she moved to D.C. "The East has a tendency to hide its scars," Sease says. Not so in the West.
Still, she's drawn to her original home landscapes. Along with her work-related trips to Western wildernesses, she takes vacations in special places like the Colorado Plateau's haunting redrock canyons. This summer, if her plans hold, she'll finally get to paddle the Salmon River's Middle Fork through a huge Idaho wilderness -- the stretch that has the famous nickname, the River of No Return.
This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.
John A. Farrell, former Denver Post D.C. bureau chief, has a new book coming out in June: Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, a biography of the great American defense attorney. He's also the author of Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century, a biography of the late speaker of the House, which came out in 2001 and won the Hardeman Prize for the best book on Congress.