Who knows best: grassroots or foundations?


The symbolism and coincidences were heavy. The day after Labor Day, the National Audubon Society fired the staff of the Endangered Species Coalition - the group created by the environmental movement to protect the Endangered Species Act from Congress.

And as if it were waiting for the firings, three days after former Indiana Congressman Jim Jontz and his staff of seven were let go, the Congress struck. Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Richard Pombo, R-Calif., introduced legislation to dismantle key sections of the Endangered Species Act.

Given the peril the act is in, the disarray is serious. But the firings also raised questions about who runs the four major campaigns that define the West's environmental movement in this time of crisis. Who are the generals in charge of fights to designate wilderness in southern Utah, to save the salmon, to preserve old-growth forests, and to protect the Endangered Species Act?

Are the campaigns led by on-the-ground activists? By the leaders of national environmental groups? By the foundations that fund most efforts? Or are they cooperative efforts that bring all parties together?

Inseparable from the question of who is in charge is the question of how the campaigns should be run. Everyone agrees that the central struggle is in the Congress. But should the Congress be influenced by grassroots groups rousing their fellow citizens? Or should the environmental movement in this desperate time put its resources into media campaigns - telephone banks, advertisements and media events that cause congressional delegations and the administration to be swamped by telephone calls, letters and faxes?

Although the details differ, these general questions have beset not just the Endangered Species Coalition, but also the Save Our Salmon Coalition, the Utah Wilderness Campaign and the Western Ancient Forest Campaign.

Audubon was the sponsor

Like the groups that have come together to designate wilderness in southern Utah and to protect salmon and old-growth forests, the Endangered Species Coalition represents an array of 230 large and small national, regional and local conservation organizations. National Audubon was the coalition's legal sponsor. It housed and paid the staff while Jontz reported to a 12-member steering committee. The coalition had hired Jontz in January 1995 to pull together what was then a lackluster campaign.

Jontz's campaign was based on daily communication between staff in D.C. and activists around the country. Activists then used the information to put pressure on their congressional delegates.

Environmental campaigns run on money, and much of the coalition's money came from Pew Charitable Trusts. It donated $75,000 to the coalition in March 1995, and promised to match that amount in November. However, only three months after Jontz took over, there were signs of trouble. Even as the new Congress seemed poised to dismantle the Endangered Species Act, and the coalition appeared helpless to stop it, other foundations refused to join Pew in supporting the coalition.

To deal with the financial crisis and strengthen the campaign, Pew encouraged Jontz to submit a proposal integrating a capital-intensive media campaign into its existing grassroots strategy. Pew also suggested hiring the Environmental Information Center, which Pew funds, to direct the whole campaign.

Jontz and Phil Clapp, director of the Environmental Information Center, worked together to create a media and grassroots campaign with a $600,000 budget. But Jontz and Clapp fell out. Faced with this split, the coalition steering committee voted in August to retain Jontz rather than to hire Clapp. Consequently, Pew pulled its $600,000 off the table; tentative commitments from other foundations for nearly $400,000 also disappeared.

But the money disappeared only for a moment. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which is a member of the coalition, said, "This was not a good thing for the planet and I made a lot of calls to turn it around."

The following week, the steering committee reversed itself and put Clapp in charge. Jontz and his campaign were to be phased out. According to Jontz, Pew had convinced the heads of several environmental groups on the steering committee to work with Clapp instead of with him. With Clapp in charge, the million dollars would almost certainly be back on the table. "Money was the deciding factor," Jontz said.

Within another week, Audubon unilaterally fired the entire coalition staff of seven. Neither the steering committee nor any of the 230 groups they represented knew the firings were coming. According to Liz Raisbeck, director of government affairs for National Audubon in Washington, D.C., Audubon was in a financial crunch and could no longer fund the coalition.

Sam Hitt, head of the Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, N.M., says more is involved in the firings. "When Pew steps in, it's like a death star in the solar system. They set up their own gravitational field and everyone begins to revolve around them. I've watched activists go through this dance of making themselves look fundable to Pew by altering their priorities to meet Pew's goals. I've had it with those guys."

Tom Wathen, director of Pew's forests and marine conservation program, says his foundation is a partner, not a dictator. "We share the policy goals of the environmental community. We want protection for endangered species to continue and be strengthened."

Pew has put its money where its rhetoric is. It granted more than $35 million to a variety of environmental causes in 1992 and another $29 million in 1993. But Wathen said the foundation has a bottom line. "We are very result-oriented. We will only fund if groups seem to have an impact." He also indicated that Pew didn't want groups to cater to it. "Groups should do what they want to do and not be driven by what foundations want."

Not all criticism of Pew and Audubon comes from grassroots activists. A senior Washington, D.C.-based environmentalist, an insider who would not allow his name to be used, said:

"It's not like the staff of (Jontz's) coalition was doing a bad job. We had expected a terrible House bill to pass months ago. They did a brilliant job of slowing it down and are creating a permanent grassroots base to fight bad ESA bills now and in the future.

"In Pew's view, the only way to run a campaign is to grab the issue, get intense media coverage, and parachute organizers in to generate letters, calls and constituent pressure on key politicians." Such an in-and-out strategy, he said, fails to recognize that environmental battles are won with passion and the long-term commitment of activists.

A bitter failure

But fighting from the grassroots doesn't always win. A recent example was the "logging without laws' salvage timber rider, which passed both houses of Congress as part of the rescissions budget bill this summer.

Citizens responding to alerts from environmental groups sent more than 60,000 calls, letters and faxes to President Clinton, pleading for his veto. In addition to rousing citizens, activists throughout the nation influenced dozens of newspapers, from the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post, to editorialize against the legislation.

Clinton responded to the anti-logging blitz, and vetoed the legislation, only to turn around a few weeks later and sign virtually the same bill into law. The logging rider was only one of many issues in the bill, and the opposition to the logging wasn't enough to carry the day.

That kind of failure, common this year, seems to be driving foundation strategists. Grassroots campaigns are difficult to organize. Hundreds of independent groups, all with separate agendas, must be convinced to work together. Each group's agenda is the most important to it, making cooperation difficult. By comparison, if the money is there, political clout - in the form of letters, calls, and faxes - can be generated almost instantaneously by a sophisticated media campaign.

Such an approach, however, threatens the role of existing organizations and individuals who have dedicated themselves to protecting their piece of the environment. They see themselves demoted to foot soldiers, with no say in how struggles are shaped and fought. As a result, Environmental Information Center director Clapp returned from a vacation to find dozens of fax alerts from fellow environmentalists attacking his credibility and commitment. He was not pleased.

"We spend too much time gathered in a circle with the guns pointed inward while Attila the Hun is at the gate," he said. "We don't have time for this."

Clapp, who was legislative director for former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, said, "I'm an expert on environmental politics in Washington, D.C., and I can organize contacts to Congress so members see, feel and hear the message. Control (of the campaign) is not the issue. I don't want the power to cut deals. But the level of resources we have is a popgun compared to what's on the other side. Traditional grassroots organizing can't carry the whole load anymore."

He notes that since 1985 an $800 million phonebanking industry has arisen and been effectively used by corporations opposed to environmental protection.

The Environmental Information Center's brand of organizing has had some success. A classic example is the campaign Clapp ran using images of children poisoned at fast-food restaurants last year by contaminated beef. That stopped a regulatory "reform" proposal in Congress that would have gutted the Environmental Protection Agency and weakened food health and safety standards. The Center targeted 17 key states and hired in-state organizers who generated more than 100,000 phone calls from local constituents to 11 senators. The campaign placed hard-hitting television ads and received substantial free media coverage, including cartoons by Garry Trudeau, who produced eight days of Doonseburys lambasting Congress and Sen. Dole, R-Kan. The Senate subsequently killed Dole's legislation.

Meanwhile, it is possible that the defense of the Endangered Species Act will end up with both Jontz and his traditional grassroots approach working on the U.S. House of Representatives, and Clapp with his well-funded media campaign targeting the Senate. In mid-September, Defenders of Wildlife agreed to house the orphaned coalition and act as fiscal agent. That should keep the coalition staff in touch with grassroots groups for the next two months.

However, the uneasy balance of short-term firepower with long-term grassroots activism in the Endangered Species Act campaign remains. The environmental movement is not unified about strategy. Perhaps it never will be. Perhaps what we are witnessing is a movement painfully evolving to match a new political order. At stake are Western forests, endangered salmon, Utah wilderness, clean water, hazardous and nuclear waste cleanup, and just about everything else environmentalists in the West care about.

Mike Medberry writes in Boise, Idaho.

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