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Know the West

A cheap shot

  Dear HCN,

High Country News took a cheap shot to deliver a hot opening line in your article about troubles in the Endangered Species Coalition (HCN, 10/16/95). You would get the idea that the National Audubon Society just woke up one day and fired the coalition staff out of pique. Not true. We were forced to lay off the staff because the coalition ran out of money. Being the fiscal agent for the coalition did not mean that Audubon could or should fund the effort ourselves when funds weren't there. The coalition steering committee is responsible for the overall funding effort.

In fact, Audubon was already $47,000 in the red covering the coalition's costs, and your writer knew perfectly well that this was the case. The reality is that the crisis had been discussed all through August, and the staff warned in early August that layoffs were likely at the end of the month. We finally, reluctantly, had no choice but to issue formal layoffs with two weeks' notice on the date cited.

While your article is offensive to Audubon, what is much more damaging is that it fuels the already strong distrust of grassroots groups toward national organizations. It falsely portrays us as callous and indifferent to wonderful people in the movement and creates unnecessary chasms between movement members who have the same goals and who need to hang together now more than ever to defend against the real enemies trying to dismantle our environmental laws. We have seen it before; when a movement gets in trouble it turns on itself and can cripple itself for decades. Some think this is what happened to the civil rights movement, and it could happen to us. May the environmental movement resist this urge. And may High Country News not feed the kind of self-destructive anger than can destroy us from within.

Elizabeth Raisbeck

National Audubon Society

The author responds:

I don't dispute Ms. Raisbeck's point that financial problems prompted the layoff of Endangered Species Coalition staff. As legal sponsor of the coalition, however, National Audubon was entrusted by 230 local, regional and national conservation groups to help keep the coalition up and running at a critical time for reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. Rather than route some of its own multimillion dollar budget to support the coalition for a few months, and rather than working harder with other groups to support the coalition, Audubon chose to dump the staff. That came as a surprise to coalition groups. The timing could not have been worse.

That the Environmental Information Center and Defenders of Wildlife were able to fund and house the coalition staff shortly after the firings offers stark contrast to Audubon's action.

Ms. Raisbeck also laments that my article fuels mistrust between grassroots and national conservation groups. My intention was to highlight a problem that has been simmering for some time in the conservation movement. I believe that nothing fuels anger like denial of a problem, and that defining a problem is the first step toward resolving it. The problem is how to integrate focused media and political campaigns on behalf of the environment with longer-term grassroots activism. Wrestling with that problem will bring growth to a conservation movement that is now in turmoil.

Mike Medberry