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."