Wyoming Conservation Voters closes after 11 years

  • Wyoming pronghorn

  • John Hambrock, www.cartoonistgroup.com

Wyoming pronghorn trek 120 miles, leaving Grand Teton National Park to winter near Pinedale, in one of the longest overland mammal migrations in the U.S. Although it's less photogenic, the winter migration of Wyoming environmental lobbyists to Cheyenne for the legislative session is similarly epic.

This was especially true before 2001, when the League of Conservation Voters opened a Wyoming chapter. Until then, there was no umbrella group to coordinate the state's disparate organizations, or any organization primarily focused on shaping environmental policy at the Legislature. Instead, says Connie Wilbert, head of the Wyoming Sierra Club, groups traveled individually to the capital to lobby against bad bills, sometimes duplicating each other's efforts or missing things altogether.

The Wyoming Conservation Voters freed up resources "being thrown on an emergency basis at the Legislature by all these other organizations," says Jason Marsden, WCV's executive director from 2001 to 2009. And it helped environmental groups with different agendas prioritize issues and lobby as a united front, while educating voters and legislators about those priorities. The idea was to make the environmental community more political, and the political community more environmental.

But this summer, lack of funding forced WCV to close its doors. The group's demise underscores the difficulty of doing environmental policy work in a state like Wyoming, which is bankrolled by extractive industries and where Republican legislators outnumber Democrats by a factor of five. And for these and other reasons, it suggests that the League's model of influencing policy by educating voters and holding officials accountable for their environmental votes doesn't work in Wyoming.

Campaign spending, lobbying and a focus on elections distinguishes LCV from other environmental groups, which concentrate more on raising awareness and money for specific causes -- such as endangered species or wilderness protection. The national League has spent more than $7 million so far this year on federal races, and more than $1.3 million in direct contributions to candidates. Some chapters throw significant cash into state elections, too.

But Wyoming's restrictive campaign finance laws made it difficult for WCV to do what the League does best. Corporations and nonprofits are prohibited from donating to candidates or political parties. Normally, nonprofits get around this by giving money to a political action committee that contributes to a candidate, but that, too, is illegal in Wyoming. (A 2011 law enabled corporations to run independent campaigns, but they still can't contribute directly to candidates.) So instead of making targeted campaign expenditures like other chapters, Marsden says, WCV focused on "grassroots civic engagement," educating voters and politicians about the environment -- much as other nonprofits do.

"(This) really confounded our ability to operate," says Ed Zuckerman, who oversees LCV's state chapters. And it hampered fundraising, as it became harder to differentiate WCV from other groups. Raising money was a perennial challenge, because often the group's legislative work mostly involved fighting bad bills rather than advancing good ones. "Sometimes your great successes are when you stop bad things from happening," says Dan Neal, former board chairman of the group's education fund. "There's nothing tangible to offer to people who support your work."

The recession only made things harder: 2009 marked the end of a three-year, $50,000 annual grant from the Wyss Foundation, a Western conservation philanthropy group. In 2010, general donations to WCV's education fund were $110,000 less than the previous year.

Wyoming's changing political climate may also have contributed to the organization's downfall. Marsden says WCV was most successful in the mid-2000s, when the state Legislature was more moderate and conservation-oriented. In 2006, for instance, it created a permanent trust to fund Wyoming conservation work.

But with Obama's election in 2008, Marsden says legislative support for environmental issues faded. "Wyoming has this history of this very counter-cyclical, stick-it-to-Washington attitude that's always there but it seems to get an awful lot louder and more severe when the White House is controlled by the Democrats."

Now, Wyoming environmentalists are trying to figure out how to fill the gap left by WCV. The Sierra Club's Wilbert says the legislative scorecard was especially valuable because it publicized lawmakers' environmental voting records, holding them accountable. "I hope we can figure out some way to continue to provide that information."

If the Legislature continues moving rightward, with noticeable impacts on the environment, Marsden expects to see another grassroots effort to get a state league going. But for Zuckerman, "The fact that (it) did not last much more than 10 years raises the bar for any new iteration to ensure that we are not going to have the same problems as the old one."

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