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.

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