Environmentalism meets a fierce friend

  • TEN YEARS OF MUCKRAKING: Newspaper cover from TomKnudson's first series, "Sierra in Peril"

  • Newspaper cover from Tom Knudson's recent series,"Environment, Inc."

 

Ten years ago, Tom Knudson awakened the West by revealing what had happened in California's Sierra Nevada - John Muir's "Range of Light" and the mountains that inspired the formation of the Sierra Club.

Knudson's 1991 series in the Sacramento Bee showed a Sierra under siege from five horsemen of a coming apocalypse: logging, grazing and fire suppression, as well as suburban sprawl and air pollution in the western foothills of the mighty range.

His articles helped inspire a public outcry, legislative hearings, a massive scientific study, and finally, early this year, an about-face in how the United States Forest Service manages its 18,000 square miles of the range and surrounding land.

"Sierra in Peril" won a Pulitzer Prize, and Knudson became a hero to environmentalists. He had moved not just a mountain, but a mountain range. If we eventually save and restore the Sierra, there should be a monument some day in Yosemite or near the top of Mount Whitney to Tom Knudson and to the newspaper that gave him the time to research and write his series.

Now, 10 years later, Tom Knudson has again crafted a special series: "Environment, Inc." This time he devotes five articles in the Bee to attacking the West's and the nation's environmental movement as overpaid, overzealous, reckless in its use of lawsuits, and "chaotic and shrill." His aim is to reform the environmental movement. But judging by the initial reaction, most environmentalists see the series as an unfair, simplistic assault on a diverse, broad movement.

For example, he attacks the Sierra Club for holding receptions in fancy hotels and for paying high office rents - for being corporate. In reality, the Sierra Club is crammed into very modest offices in a seedy part of San Francisco. Meanwhile, a group he praises, The Nature Conservancy, occupies high-ceilinged, high-rent quarters in a much better part of the same city.

In response to the legitimate charges Knudson makes - the unwarranted lawsuits, the exaggerated direct-mail letters, the resistance to thinning trees to prevent fires - environmentalists respond that so long as the earth and its ocean are warming, species are vanishing, and forests are being destroyed, we have no choice but to toll the bells as loudly as we can. We ask why, when there are so many real problems in the region, is Knudson nit-picking a movement that is attempting to save the Western United States.

If this were almost any other journalist, we could blow off the series, dismiss him as a reporter who has lost focus and perspective. But this is Tom Knudson, and we should pay attention to what turned him from a journalist who has spent two decades muckraking environmentalism's enemies to one who is muckraking environmentalism.

Judging by the emotional content of the series, he is most offended by environmentalism's end-of-the-world, doomsday rhetoric in millions of pieces of direct mail. Direct mail is the public face of environmentalism, and that face, he implies, is often covered with angry red blotches. The letters, he says, are hysterical, overstated and at times flat-out wrong. He is next offended by bloated salaries and fancy offices.

But Knudson is not all negative. He closes his series with a celebration of grassroots groups, conservation-minded ranchers, and large environmental groups, like The Nature Conservancy, who buy land to save it.

Here, Knudson wears his heart on his sleeve: He wants a pure, close-to-the-earth environmental movement that protects the land, works cooperatively with rural people, and is calm and scientific, rather than hysterical in tone and focused on raising money even if it takes multi-paged, heavily underlined, edge-of-the-truth letters.

Who isn't nostalgic for the old days? But they are past. Environmentalism in the West is no longer a puny movement struggling to get the attention of the American public. For eight years, we sat at the right hand of power in the Clinton administration, working a revolution. We created national monuments, we put 91,000 square miles of roadless national forest off-limits to roading, we created regulations to reform hardrock mining, we ended dam building and began to talk of pulling down massive dams.

We had that power because the American people have bought into environmentalism and Clinton knew it. Environmentalism has become an important part of how we do business in the West. It used to be, when I traveled, people would show me a clear-cut or a new road being gouged through a small canyon. Now I'm taken to see a stream that a few years before was a gully, or a wetland that had been a farmed field, or a forest that has been thinned and de-roaded.

In a brief few decades, everything in the West has changed except one thing: We in the environmental movement still see ourselves as a beleaguered minority fighting against all odds to change the American West.

We fail to accept how deep are the changes we have wrought. We have forgotten that this president's father ended underground nuclear testing, vetoed an enormous dam outside Denver, and signed a law to reform the use of irrigation water in California's Central Valley. Like Clinton, he advanced an environmental agenda because he knew the will of the American people.

Now comes George W. Bush, with his frontal attack on the roadless initiative, with a plan to build a power plant a week, and a determination to drill in the Arctic and in the new national monuments.

In response, we push panic buttons and act as if he, rather than conservationists, has the nation and major global trends on his side. To take advantage of our strengths, we have to act like leaders with broad responsibilities, rather than a narrowly focused special interest. We have to fight not just to protect the Arctic and the national monuments and the Rocky Mountain Front, but to help deal with society's energy problems. Old plants must be shut down. New plants and new transmission lines must be built. Efficiency and conservation must be encouraged.

In these coming four years, as in the last eight, the major national groups must sit at the table with the other leaders of the nation. And the environmentalists must be led by relatively well-paid leaders backed by professional staffs. The national groups must even behave in corporate ways: They must be well-organized, have adequate resources and a sensible, inclusive strategy.

As a first step toward accepting the responsibility of leadership, we can change our direct-mail letters so they are no longer red-faced with anger and ugliness. They should be more generous and should ask for help financing alternatives to litigation and open conflict. They should acknowledge that most of the West is a working landscape, and that rural people and rural economies are necessary to the health and productivity of that landscape. For these are the allies we need if we are to protect and restore the West.

It is where success has led us.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...