Shake-up: Greens inside the Beltway

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - When the news leaked that Bill Meadows had been chosen to head The Wilderness Society, everyone called friends to commiserate. All anyone knew about Meadows was that "III" followed his name and he had raised $92 million for the Sierra Club.

"He's a fund raiser," was the usual comment, followed by laments that the movement had reached an ugly nadir of corporatization.

Meadows, as it turns out, isn't the corporate clone people expected. Announcing that The Monkey Wrench Gang is right up there with Sand County Almanac on his favorite eco-books list, he sounds like a hybrid of his fellow Tennessean Al Gore and the kinder, gentler Dave Foreman who now sits on the Sierra Club board. In fact, Meadows called the former Wilderness Society lobbyist and Earth First! co-founder to ask his advice about taking The Wilderness Society job.

What's more important is that Meadows' agenda sounds suspiciously like the work of The Wildlands Project, a think tank founded by Foreman and a handful of the country's top conservation biologists. The Wildlands Project's goal of remapping North America along lines that will protect biodiversity is about the only visionary thing going in a movement trapped in a defensive posture. The best proof of this lies in the fact that the Sierra Club, and now The Wilderness Society, have changed their emphasis, adopting a more scientifically based, landscape-level perspective.

"We steal good ideas when we see them," joked Meadows.

That's the good news. The bad news is that as environmental groups lurch across the bridge to the 21st century, their traditional strengths are faltering in the face of globalization. Each organization is struggling to reinvent itself. Some, like the Sierra Club, are going back to their roots; others are amputating large parts of their staffs and missions. But it's not clear whether either approach will provide the needed steroids - or strategy.

At the same time, the movement's core values are being challenged by ostensible supporters.

In Uncommon Ground, a recent book he edited, University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon tries to debunk the very concept of wilderness, and even Bill McKibben has cast doubt, saying the "idea of nature" will not survive global pollution. Whether or not they're right depends on your philosophical point of view. But without wilderness as the movement's heart, it's hard to imagine facing down opponents on the global stage.

The most dramatic retooling among the Big Ten is taking place at the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. When Nature Conservancy honchos John Flicker and Eric Draper took over Audubon last winter, every employee with more than 10 years' experience or over the age of 55 was offered a buyout. Draper, who now runs the Washington, D.C., office from his home base in Florida, says he and CEO Flicker were bent on saving money and "giving people a chance to explore new opportunities." Critics say Draper and Flicker were merely consolidating their power.

Some Audubon activists think that it was time for the older Washington, D.C., hands to bow out. But the recent downsizing of historic figures such as forest activist Brock Evans, who was part of the Audubon buyout, and Tom Watkins, the much-loved editor of Wilderness Magazine, raises the question of how the movement will deal with its tribal elders, who came of age as environmentalism expanded in the 1970s. Does the environmental movement act like a corporation and ruthlessly cut budgets? Or does it use scarce funds to keep high-salaried employees who aren't necessarily at the cutting edge but can offer experience and a sense of history?

There may be no simple answer, but with Evans relegated to consultant status, Audubon's forest program is down to one staffer. By contrast, the Everglades program has gone from four to 12 staffers. Yet both were voted as high priority by Audubon's membership. Draper and Flicker worked for The Nature Conservancy in Florida and their focus seems to be on East Coast issues in general and on their home turf in particular.

The larger question, according to Bonnie Phillips of Audubon's Pilchuk chapter in Washington state, is whether the team's Nature Conservancy training will make it uncomfortable with litigation and with a group that is essentially democratic. Others question whether Audubon has absented itself from Washington politics a little too thoroughly. Says one former staffer: "The sun doesn't rise and set on Washington, D.C., but it does seem like for a national group they've sort of given up. I don't know whether they're able to help local groups work on these issues or if that's just cover for doing nothing."

Draper says that he and Flicker are merely implementing the plan adopted by Audubon before their arrival, a plan which emphasized grassroots activism and more integration within the traditionally decentralized organization. Many of the environmental movement's leaders started making noises about getting back to the grass roots even before Gingrich took over the House. But none of the Big Ten groups went beyond mere posturing until recently. Money was the biggest problem, but lack of will was right up there.

Suddenly, that's changing. Not only is Audubon beefing up its field staff, but the Sierra Club is going through an awkward but genuine renaissance. After spending the 1980s defending an outdated strategy on ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, the club recently went to the other extreme when members voted in a policy of zero cut on the national forests. While staffers give lip service to zero cut, the club is actually returning to its old strength, electoral politics, where there's a chance of making a difference.

Mark Dowie, author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, and a fairly vociferous critic of the national groups, says the movement's future lies not with the Big Ten but with local grassroots groups, particularly those run by people of color. His prescription is scoffed at by activists, who know that whatever their color, grassroots activists are chronically short of money and time.

The obvious remedy is for grassroots groups to form larger alliances, which is exactly what they're doing. Andy Kerr, who recently left the Oregon Natural Resources Council, is working on a national umbrella organization. A second approach, the Grassroots Environmental Effectiveness Network (GREEN), already has activists around the country plugged in via e-mail. And the Westside Forest Alliance recently formed to represent 20 groups in the Pacific Northwest. You might say these groups are reinventing wheels that have been turning for a century now, but they have the advantage of youth. And they don't have a strong staff; they're being run by the activists who started them.

It's just this democratic element that is most crucial to any organization's survival, according to Bob Brulle, a professor at George Mason University. "You need to have citizen participation in the long run to have a viable organization," he says.

This may explain why the Environmental Defense Fund is everyone's favorite whipping boy. This group, which pioneered trading pollution credits, has a board chosen by board members rather than elected. But Bill Roberts, EDF's vice president, recently set up an e-mail network to get members more involved. This alarmed activists from other groups, who fear that EDF is drumming up support for a weakened Endangered Species Act (HCN, 4/29/96) in the next legislative session.

Well, maybe. But Roberts may be opening Pandora's box, which these days comes loaded with silicon chips. If EDF's members ever get involved with something more than their checkbooks, there's a good chance they will be more hard-line than the Washington, D.C., technocrats.

If anecdotal evidence means anything, it may be revealing that the only groups not represented in force at a party held on Capitol Hill in October to celebrate the end of the "most anti-environmental Congress in history" were the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Everyone from long-haired James McGuinness of Seeds of Peace, the hippie support group for civil disobedience practitioners, to Brooks Yeager, Bruce Babbitt's top lieutenant at the Department of Interior, was scarfing beers and slapping each other on the back. Even the National Wildlife Federation, which supporters claim is undergoing a revival under its new head, Mark Van Putten, was represented by a brash young lawyer or two.

If you hadn't been listening to all the complaints, you might even think there was a sense of community. And you would have been right - mostly. "What's been going on in the last four years inside the Beltway is a split within the mainstream between the accommodators and those who are standing fast," says Sierra Club's Mike McCloskey, who is undergoing a bit of a renaissance himself these days as an outspoken and trenchant critic of the Clinton administration.

Standing firm is paying off in old-fashioned land protection. In fact, the end of the congressional session this fall was punctuated with the first successful bid by the Clinton administration to push the envelope on environmental politics - the declaration of the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which smoothed the way for Clinton's 11th-hour pre-election move by packing every public hearing in the state with hardcore wilderness supporters, was everybody's hero.

Environmentalism may be limping into the 21st century without knowing how politics can be bent to the tasks of preserving biodiversity or putting a leash on global capitalism. Nobody's even sure how to finance the federal lands so they're not constantly threatened with the auction block. But the love of place that drove the movement into being a century ago is more passionate than ever. Out in the field, small litigious groups like the Idaho Conservation League and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity in New Mexico have been racking up victories, not by consensus but by suing the bastards. Bart Koehler of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council showed up at the Capitol Hill party to crow over the victory he and other environmentalists achieved in the Tongass National Forest, where a heavily subsidized Louisiana-Pacific mill finally closed. Seasoned wilderness pros like Koehler and McCloskey seem pumped up to fight the same old battles next year.

"This whole Bill McKibben, Bill Cronon thing about the death of nature and the death of wilderness as a concept is utter horseshit," said Mike Medberry of the Idaho Conservation League in a telephone interview, fresh from his group's courtroom victory on curbing water pollution created by logging. "These guys are getting into this heady philosophy about wilderness; they're trying to deconstruct it or something. I just want to put them out there in it somewhere and see what they say."

Susan Zakin is the author of Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement and a columnist for Sports Afield in Washington, D.C.