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.

At first, her D.C. work was not "about bad guys," she says. "It wasn't, at least in those first years, about going out to beat back an enemy." It was "something new and exciting and we were doing good."

Foreman, however, didn't see it that way. When the Carter administration finished reviewing wild lands, it proposed opening tens of millions of acres to commercial use and preserving just a portion of what remained. The West's congressional delegations seemed just as timid when crafting their own state wilderness bills. When that first full-time year in D.C. was over, a disillusioned Foreman returned to New Mexico. Ultimately, he resigned from The Wilderness Society and in 1980, with a handful of other newly militant environmentalists, founded Earth First! -- a group committed to civil disobedience and uncompromising resistance to development. "We had really played the game," Foreman says, remembering the early days in D.C. "We got shafted by playing by the rules. That is what led to Earth First!"

Sease and Foreman agreed that she would stay in D.C. for another six months to finish an important public lands project. "But six months stretched into another six months, and we realized it was over between us," Foreman says. "I enjoyed going to D.C., but ... I concluded I was a Westerner. And Debbie found she liked it there."

In the movement's evolving D.C. habitat, careerists were supplanting the scruffy volunteers. "When I worked as a conservation lobbyist in Washington, D.C., I was told to put my heart in a safe deposit box and replace my brain with a pocket calculator," Foreman wrote in his 1991 memoir, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. "We learned to moderate our opinions along with our dress. We learned that extremists were ignored in the councils of government, that the way to get a senator to put his arm around your shoulders and drop a wilderness bill in the hopper was to ... pare back the proposal accordingly."

It's the ethical question that every idealist who enters politics must eventually confront. Success in governing often requires compromise and accommodation -- even, at its worst, manipulation and deception and sell-outs. There is genuine, old-fashioned corruption out there, but the greatest threat to one's integrity is not posed by shady guys passing envelopes of cash, says Denver-based David Sirota, a liberal political operative who has spent time in D.C. "It is that you are surrounded by people who subscribe to a certain set of narrow viewpoints. That everything you hear at all times tells you not to rock the boat by actually doing what you came to Washington to do."

D.C. is a city where "people almost eagerly dehumanize themselves," wrote the late Meg Greenfield, the longtime editorial page editor of The Washington Post, in her 2001 memoir, Washington. "They allow the markings of region, family, class, individual character and, generally, personhood that they once possessed to be leached away. At the same time, they construct a new public self that often does terrible damage to what remains of the genuine psyche."

Sease recognized and accepted those risks because D.C. is where the many of the important decisions are made. "It's hard. You make a real sacrifice," says Tom Udall, whose family has straddled the two worlds -- the West and D.C. -- for half a century. "What provides Debbie a center, and roots her ... what has sustained her in Washington, is a real love of the West."

During the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan named James Watt -- a champion of mining and livestock grazing on federal land -- as secretary of Interior, it energized Sease. At that time, she was trying to raise the profile of obscure Bureau of Land Management wild areas, and Watt's headline-grabbing moves actually helped her rally people to defend them. Her life "became all about fighting back."

Yet even during the Reagan years, D.C. politics were not as polarized as today. The West still had its maverick politicians, like Colorado's Democratic Sen. Hart and Wyoming's Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, who eschewed partisan ideology and enjoyed each other's sly sensibility. There were enough pro-environment Democrats and Republicans in Congress to keep wilderness bills moving and to put up serious fights against efforts to release wild lands for development. In many ways, Reagan and Watt helped: Direct-mail appeals went out from the big environmental groups, and tens of thousands of people wrote checks and enlisted in the cause. They saved much of the old-growth forests and wild lands at risk in Alaska. It was "a whole series of wonderful victories and crushing defeats ... and terrible compromises," Mahoney recalls.

Sease and Mahoney signed on with the Sierra Club and learned how to effectively reach out to that group's huge base (now 1.3 million members) to generate the kind of grassroots pressure that influences Congress in D.C. "You learn how to oppose a bill -- you delay it, you say a lot of shrill things about how catastrophic it will be if it passes, and you win by running out the clock," says Mahoney. "To pass a bill, you examine your political terrain, determine what is achievable, look for a broader coalition. Your whole tone is conciliatory -- you can't beat people into wanting to help you. ... I learned that when you can get a lot, take it. And that other times you have to settle, and come back another day."

Sease had a mentor, California Rep. Phil Burton, who was a legislative sorcerer. A tireless, profane, chain-smoking, hard-drinking liberal with an encyclopedic understanding of his colleagues' districts and what it would take to persuade them, Burton assembled massive public-lands and social assistance bills, shrewdly tweaking details to corral the necessary votes, and then rode roughshod over the opposition. "I just adored the man," Sease says. "He was a master of the politics of pulling things together ... a ruthless politician who believed in children and education and the environment."

Sease had been working, fruitlessly, to get the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande protected as a wild and scenic river. As she made the rounds of congressional offices, "even the staff stood me up," she recalls. It was Burton and his staff who initially helped her organize the grassroots to generate phone calls and letters to other members of Congress, and doors started opening for her. "I suddenly became a powerful lobbyist," she says. The canyons legislation passed.

Adopting a different strategy on the ground in the West, Foreman's new group tried to wrestle control of the Western myth away from the corporate cowboys. Earth First! was an environmentalist guerrilla movement that engaged in political theater, physical resistance and minor acts of sabotage, which were promoted by Abbey's 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Foreman was arrested by federal agents in 1989, accused of inspiring the sabotage of an Arizona power line, and pled guilty to a misdemeanor. He has since taken a more low-key approach. For a time, he served on the Sierra Club board, and now he works for The Rewilding Institute, a project to promote wilderness and biodiversity.

"I think there is a need for every approach, and people have to decide what works best for them," says Foreman. Too often, in his view, environmentalists "make compromises before we even start, to make it palatable. And then during the process we compromise further. And then we pretend it is a big sweeping victory instead of part-defeat. ... We set the bar too low."

Mahoney worked on more than 40 wilderness bills in 36 states and helped protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but then he hit the wall and left the Sierra Club in 1989. "It was too much," he recalls. "Too much pressure. Too much Washington." Recently, he has returned to the Hill as a consultant to campaigns for wilderness, especially in Idaho and Montana. He learned a hard lesson from events in Montana: He turned down a wilderness compromise proffered by Sen. Max Baucus in the mid-1980s and wound up empty-handed. Since then, much of that land has been logged or scarred by roads and development. "We took the all-or-nothing approach" on Baucus' attempt to compromise, Mahoney says. "And we got nothing. My greatest regrets are the times I said no, and found that we didn't do better next year."

Sease climbed in the Sierra Club's ranks, from directing the group's public-lands program to legislative director to her current post as national campaign director. She says her decisions to compromise or resist compromise have been guided by the Sierra Club's membership. "The Sierra Club is, by design, a grassroots organization. Even if my years in Washington led me to want to go along to get along, our grassroots wouldn't let me." She recalls that Baucus' Montana wilderness deal "wasn't good enough, and had some fairly objectionable language," but because it died, some "very, very nice areas are now clear-cut. ... I look back and say, my God, if we had only taken that (deal)."

Asked to list her achievements, she replies, "I made a contribution to something a very large number of people achieved." But if she wished, she could stand on the riverbank and take some credit for the wild condition of not only her beloved stretch of the Rio Grande, but also the Chama River in New Mexico and California's Merced River. She contributed to the San Juan Basin and El Malpais wilderness campaigns in New Mexico, the Aravaipa and Arizona Desert and Arizona Strip wilderness campaigns in Arizona, and California's Ventana Wilderness as well as the California Desert Protection Act, which preserved more than 1.4 million acres in a single stroke. Among her personal favorites is the preservation of the hoodoo rock in three tiny wild areas in northern New Mexico called the Bisti Badlands.

She's also served on the boards of directors of the League of Conservation Voters and The Partnership Project, a behind-the-scenes coalition of the 21 biggest environmental groups. Fair to say, personal connections help. During the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, for instance, Sease could "be found brainstorming with the other female power players in the environmental movement at a networking luncheon held in Washington, D.C., every six weeks," E: the Environmental Magazine reported in 1997. Those power lunches included Carol Browner, head of Clinton's Environmental Protection Agency, and Katie McGinty, head of Clinton's Council on Environmental Quality. Around that time, Sease's official lobbying helped push the Clinton administration to toughen regulations on soot and smog -- a crackdown that survived President George W. Bush's efforts to roll back many regulations.

The environmental movement, especially in D.C., is also a lifestyle and a social setting. Sease remarried, to Russell Shay, then a fellow Sierra Club lobbyist. He worked on wilderness legislation with her and spent almost a decade as an aide in the House and Senate, specializing on public lands and environmental matters. They live in a rowhouse -- a narrow two stories and a basement -- in the charming Capitol Hill neighborhood, a favorite for members of Congress, near urban parks, a Shakespeare theater, tidy strips of restaurants and shops. She often rides a bike to work, but she's hesitant to bike home at night because it doesn't feel that safe after dark. As she says, "It is the city." She has no kids and fills any spare moments with creative hobbies: She's become a painter, a woodworker and an urban gardener.

In the springtime, from her office window in another building in the neighborhood, she can see the cherry blossoms in a small park. (The Sierra Club needs more space, however, so soon she'll move to a building where her window will look out on an alley.) She's decorated her office with Western art and artifacts and quirky mementoes. She built the conference table out of an old slab of elm and did the turquoise inlay. A mashed hubcap is displayed on the wall: She had a fender-bender while driving a 15-passenger van on a political tour of the California desert, and Sierra Club volunteers gave her the hubcap as a souvenir.

No longer such an overt buckaroo, she wears dresses or jeans to work, and keeps a suit hanging on the back of her office door for important meetings with politicians. Even in the suit, she sticks to "sensible shoes" -- flat with rubber soles for walking across the marble floors of the monumental buildings in the Capitol complex. She walks with a slight limp; the joints of one foot are fused, part of the polio aftermath. She still likes the flash of Navajo silver, turquoise and coral jewelry, some of which she buys in the Department of Interior's Native American crafts store.

She works 40 to 70 hours per week. Her favorite D.C. habitats include the Hart Senate Office Building: "It's spare, designed to be monumental yet accommodating to humans, very satisfying, and I love the Calder mobile in the center of it." She likes to take refuge in the 130-year-old Capitol Grotto, designed by the Capitol's landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted -- a small fountain, four benches and intricate brickwork in a grove of trees where few tourists go. She sits there between meetings, reading email on her iPhone.

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.

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