The most influential conservationist you've never heard of

  • Westerner Debbie Sease, national campaign director for the Sierra Club, at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

    Kris Connor
  • Debbie Sease, national campaign director for the Sierra Club, at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. Today, her fight for the West is more difficult than ever.

    Kris Connor
  • Tim Mahoney (center) and fellow Westerner Doug Scott (right), who now works in the Pew Environment Group's Seattle office, at a session on the Alaska Lands Act in the House Interior Committee room c. 1970s.

    Tim Mahoney
  • Tim Mahoney today.

    Kris Connor
  • Debbie Sease talks about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2005 on C-SPAN's Washington Journal program.

  • Sease checks for messages at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

    Kris Connor
  • Dave Foreman, now with The Rewilding Institute in Albuquerque, works for continental conservation in places like Thelon River in Canada's Northwest Territory.

    Nancy Morton
  • Debbie Sease and a fellow Wilderness Society staffer, Lynn Krzynach, on break from the demands of Washington circa 1978 at the Big Schloss Roadless Area in Virginia.

    Dave Foreman
  • Sease at home in her Capitol Hill rowhouse, where she's carved out space for a woodworking shop and artifacts like a skull.

    Kris Connor
  • Chiles that remind Sease of her New Mexico roots.

    Kris Connor

Washington, D.C.

When environmentalists needed somebody to stand in front of the cameras on the U.S. Capitol lawn last summer, to connect BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Debbie Sease got the call.

The veteran Sierra Club lobbyist -- flanked by two U.S. senators and a House committee chairman -- delivered the day's winning sound bite: "Today we see an ocean burning. We need no further evidence that drilling is dangerous."

It was a typical appearance for Sease, a self-described "desert rat" from New Mexico. In this town of titanic egos, a place that former Colorado Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder called "the Planet of the Guys," Sease has worked for 30-some years on behalf of land and water, air quality and critters. Today, the 62-year-old is one of the most influential conservationists you've probably never heard of.

Since Sease came to D.C. in the 1970s, with a cadre of brash young Western environmentalists who shared a fierce and romantic attachment to Western landscapes, most of the others have burned out or fled -- casualties of D.C.'s hard ways. The skills Sease learned and the toughness she developed in the West, as a polio-stricken kid who became a wilderness guide and an avid kayaker, have helped her survive here. She has a gift for keeping her cool while navigating turbulent political currents. As a result, she's helped pass federal laws preserving millions of acres of Western wilderness and national parks, sheltering wild rivers and protecting air quality. Her job, she says, is "immensely satisfying."

A few right-wing bloggers predictably condemn her as a "socialist" and a "communist," while Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., praises her: "She doesn't have a flashy style ... (she's just) dedicated herself, for a long time, to understanding Washington and how it works so she can get things done."

The capital has a way of ensnaring those who relish power and delight in the tricks of the game. Sease has weathered huge changes in the environmental movement and the D.C. ecosystem, suffered the breakup of her marriage to a famous environmental activist -- Dave Foreman, a founder of Earth First! -- and sacrificed some of her Western identity. She's determined to stick with it, even though her job is now more difficult than ever.

Sease grew up in a series of New Mexico towns, for the most part in Las Cruces and Roswell, in the state's stark southern desert. Her dad, David, who worked for the Farmers Home Administration helping ranchers get loans, liked to take his kids camping, hunting and fishing. Because she had polio, he carried her "piggyback," she recalls, "through a lot of wild country." She recovered from the disease, though there are some lasting effects, and studied architecture at the University of New Mexico. She began volunteering as a wilderness activist and then took a job with a group called the University of the Wilderness. It gave her the chance to help lead river trips through the Rio Grande's Big Bend country and other wild areas -- and launched her career as an environmentalist.

She met Foreman while he was also attending the university in Albuquerque. He was an Eagle Scout and military brat whose father's career as an Air Force pilot had taken the family all over the West. She helped fuel his environmentalism by giving him a copy of Edward Abbey's 1968 literary rage, Desert Solitaire. By the time they married in 1975, they'd already made their first trips to D.C. and were learning to lobby and testify in Congress.

In 1978, Celia Hunter, an Alaskan who was running The Wilderness Society, was looking for wild cards. Hunter summoned Sease and Foreman, along with Tim Mahoney, an activist in Denver, to work in D.C. They came wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats, with a liking for country music and enchiladas. They styled themselves as buckaroos, Foreman says, and the run-down rental in which they lived was christened "the Buckaroo Bunkhouse." It was, Sease recalls, a "rickety ... dirt cheap ... chartreuse ... flophouse" with a "wretched little kitchen," in Rosslyn, Va., a soulless zip code on a bluff across the Potomac River from D.C. They networked with various Western compadres who crashed with them while visiting D.C., including Bart Koehler, who's now based in Alaska and still working for The Wilderness Society. Back then, Koehler wore a "rodeo-star-sized belt buckle with a grizzly bear on it" and had "howling coyotes on his red power tie," according to Susan Zakin's 1993 book, Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement.

"I was only going to be here for a year," Sease says. "I didn't unpack my boxes." It was a point of honor to reject the capital's serious button-down style. "We were a fairly rowdy bunch," says Mahoney, a "failed graduate student" with New Hampshire roots who had roamed the Rocky Mountains fighting mining, clear-cutting and drilling. "We had brought our buckaroo mentality along. We were hard-drinking, hard-partying people -- viewed as kind of crude by some of our senior colleagues, and endearing to others. We probably looked a trifle roughhewn on the Hill."

At that time, the modern era in Western environmentalism was just getting into gear in D.C. During the 1950s and 1960s, the discussion focused on water, and Western boosters -- Democrats like Colorado Rep. Wayne Aspinall and Arizona Sen. Carl Hayden and Republicans like Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins -- worked together to build massive dams to harness rivers for hydropower and the region's thirsty, growing cities. The close-knit Western delegations socialized with the representatives of industries, including staging lectures on Wild West lore. It was all genteel and bipartisan, even as environmental groups struggled to keep dams out of the Grand Canyon and other totemic sites.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 and the first Earth Day protest in 1970 signaled a dawning environmental awareness. Realizing that industrial impacts and increasing population threatened many of the region's qualities, Westerners elected a new breed of greenish leaders, typified by Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm and Sen. Gary Hart. During the 1970s, Congress worked with Republican President Richard Nixon and Democratic President Jimmy Carter to pass more major environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act.

D.C. activists like Sease, Foreman and Mahoney shifted from battling dam proposals to proactively preserving wild lands, streams and old-growth forests. The Wilderness Act launched a process in which the Forest Service and other agencies surveyed their holdings to see what qualified for protection. The wilderness buckaroos were given the task of working with sympathetic officials in the Carter administration, and with other environmental groups, to help persuade Congress to save those lands. Sease reveled in the challenge. She was learning from experience and from some mentors -- aware that she was a part of historic changes.

kurt cole
kurt cole
Aug 18, 2011 09:16 AM
Its good to protect the environment as long as we use COMMON SENSE. Which most groups have lost or never had. As for every action there is an equal reaction. But most of the groups live far away in the big cities and all of a sudden they have to influence a community they don't live in and the majority of all the groups never see the areas they are trying to close to either logging , mining , road projects. The biggest fraud is timber harvesting is bad. The forest is like a garden if you dont take care of it and harvest and clean the dead and diseased from it. It becomes choked and extreme fire hazard animals can't move around in it they go on roads that have been built and are gratefull to eat the grass the roads and what areas have been logged to supply food for them. The majority of the elite groups have over 9 billion dollars at there disposal to kill jobs that help communities and the wildlife there trying to protect and in actuallity there making it worse. Northwest montana and northern idaho have never had wolfs ever. So now here are almost 20 packs introduced into an area that has never had wolfs. So deer,elk,moose are being barraged by a predator they never had to deal with. So as a result what was already a lowering population of deer,elk, and moose, they will be eventually wiped out because there is nothing to keep wolfs in check. Oh yes thank you so much seirra club and other groups that fought so hard to give us a predator we never had here. And now that there here its another excuse to close more land area from use by local residents that used to have access in years past. Im sorry your all out of control and using what ever means to achieve your goals. At the expense of community after community. Your destroying americas tax base,sending familys to other places to try to find jobs that are extremly hard to find. So our country goes into recession because coal is bad, mining is bad , logging is bad, dam people thats what founded this country and gave us our status as a free country and proud to be an american. All the companys have made monumental strides to improve quaility and try to keep jobs. Keep it up and even your free ride of all the money your groups get will dry up. Its the workers of america that make everything you see and touch a reality and most of you groups are destroying the hopes of american freedom. Trees grow very well and is a highly renewable resorce skid trails the next year has hundred of baby trees growing were they couldn't before so this go green save a tree is crap. Again when trees reach a older age they switch from making oxygen to making c02. But thanks to the nafta agreement canada is doing well sending all there wood products to the USA and we are slowly being fassed out thanks to the policy save a tree save a tree. Mining allows the united states to make our own metals, for cars,metals for electronics,and thousands upon thousands of other uses. There are eis studies all the time for mining, steps put into place to prevent disturbing areas in danger of certain animals or environment. If we don't have our mining, timber , and oil development. Then everybody might want to start learning chinese because as a american citizen your very livilyhood is at stake. Oh yes like dominos it will collapse our economy and we will become a total wellfare state. Every thing will be imported worse than it is today. Our farms across the united states are also endangered of fading away to other countries. If you groups really cared about the united states and our industries to keep us strong don,t point your finger that this is wrong and that is wrong. Come up with plans to fix the problem and aid in applying that fix. All the things you point out its taxpayers money that have to fix everything you groups stop and tie up in courts and legal hoops. groups are guilty of imbelishing the truth and granted we have all been dupped by our own government for years. But we should all be working together to rebuild our country to a solid structure and make being an american something to be proud of again. All it takes is roll up your sleeves , keep your common sense or find it and help your neighbor , so come on america call your reps, senators, congress we need to take our country back. And make America A great and Grand country again