DC's green power-brokers look for new home

  • Sketch of flowers wearing environmental insignias

    Diane Sylvain

A chastened national environmental movement, watching the progress it fought for over decades being dismantled by a hostile Congress, is going back to its roots.

Or so its leaders say.

Big national organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, and others, had for years poured more and more resources into Washington to generate environmental legislation.

Relatively little went to working with and supporting local and regional activists who fight countless small wars to defend the land, wildlife, resources and public health of their communities.

The national groups' tactics helped enact landmark environmental laws: the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and many more. Armed with those laws, the groups went to court to fight and win battles to preserve public lands and resources and to reduce pollution and other public health hazards.

Along with their victories came prosperity. The nationals, based in Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco built up sizable staffs, paid their officers substantial salaries and moved into commodious headquarters.

Those heady years have clearly ended. Political clout vanished with a 104th Congress that is virulently antagonistic to their agenda. Now, the environmental organizations are in a defensive crouch behind a political Maginot Line in a desperate struggle to protect environmental laws and institutions.

While they have recovered from a loss of membership and funding in the early 1990s, most are growing only slowly or remaining stable. Few are experiencing anything like the dramatic growth they enjoyed when they were defending the environment against assaults by President Reagan, Interior Secretary James Watt and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch in the early 1980s.

Some local environmental activists are even saying that the national groups have become irrelevant. "People use phrases like "the national environmental movement is dead," "''''said William W. Howard, Jr., president of the National Wildlife Federation, the biggest of the national groups. "It's not true, but statements like that are very divisive within the environmental camp."

The national environmental organizations are indeed alive and kicking. But they are also casting about for ways to remain forces in the struggle to protect the environment.

Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a regional activist group, said, "The national environmental movement grew somewhat complacent when it had a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress and members of those organizations were landing positions in the administration. Everything seemed hunky-dory. Then - kaboom - the situation changed and they weren't in a position to do anything."

The national organizations believe that the drive by the Republican Right to roll back environmental protection does not reflect the will of the American people. But they recognize that those who hold power in Congress are there because many Americans no longer trust Washington, or any central national authority, including environmental groups, to do the right thing.

"The hard core is coming at us from all sides but we have not yet figured out how to fight a multifaceted battle," said Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "We feel like General Custer."

In alarmed and somewhat belated response, the environmental groups, almost without exception, are starting to pursue local strategies.

John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, noted that, "While Audubon has traditionally been a grassroots organization, over the past 20 years we have devoted more resources to building up our capability in Washington." Now, he finds, "We are moving into a new era of conservation. We are out of the era of major command and control frameworks and into an era much more focused on solving problems at the state and local level. We need to organize accordingly."

Greenpeace USA, which has often been the guerrilla warrior of the environmental movement, is moving toward a new attack. "Our mantra now is "What are the solutions?" ," said Barbara Dudley, the group's executive director. "We can no longer just go around saying that the sky is falling."

Greenpeace is converting its national canvassing organization, until now concerned chiefly with fund raising, into a support cadre for local activist groups. But Dudley added, "Local people need to understand the interrelationship of their issues with broader issues; for example, the relationship of nuclear waste disposal in Ward Valley (in California) with French nuclear testing in the South Pacific."

One lesson that national environmental groups say they drew from the 1994 election was the need to get serious about electoral politics.

The Sierra Club has long defined itself as a grassroots organization, with its local chapters providing leadership for and directing the agenda of the national organization. But Carl Pope, the club's president, said that the 1994 election confirmed what they had already suspected.

"We had taken for granted that Americans who care about the environment were sufficiently concerned about the political process to hold politicians accountable," Pope said. "But it isn't true. They do not hold them accountable. The politicians are accountable only to their campaign contributors. We see now that we have to change our tactics and our strategy and our organization to keep our whole focus on changing the politics of environment across the country. To do that we have to keep the public informed and encourage it to pay attention to politics."

Friends of the Earth has revived its political action committee, which had been dormant for six years. "With only 38 percent of the electorate voting, we have to persuade people that the most important single thing they can do is to elect enlightened decision makers at every level of government," said FOE president Brent Blackwelder.

The political arm of the national groups, the League of Conservation Voters, took a long look at itself after the 1994 election. Its leaders have decided to create a field program to cooperate with local environmental groups and help train activists in electoral politics.

There even appears to be an awakening of some groups to the fact that the assault on the environment reflects other problems afflicting the nation. The Wilderness Society now does economic analysis to accompany its environmental agenda, said its president, Jon Roush. "If we can't sustain communities around wilderness areas, then we can't have sustainable wilderness areas."

Roush also thinks that environmental groups "missed the boat" when they failed to address the legitimate economic concerns of many in the West who now have enlisted in the so-called wise-use movement.

"When I was a rancher in Montana, many of my neighboring ranchers were nascent environmentalists. A lot of loggers liked being out in the woods. But the environmental community in the "70s and "80s drew too sharp a line between us and them and missed a great organizing opportunity."

Some local activists are skeptical of the national groups' new direction.

Caroline Simmons of the New England Environmental Network, which is trying to organize that region to counter the Republican "Contract for America," said that national environmental groups "have just disappeared."

And some grassroots environmentalists hold as much anger for the national groups as do the more extreme wise-use advocates.

Tim Hermach, executive director of the Native Forest Council, dedicated to protecting the nation's ancient forests, is bitter about what he calls the "spineless' willingness of the nationals to compromise away irreplaceable resources.

"It should be clear to anyone," he said, "that we have too little nature left to give away any and we should be saving it all and getting back all we can. But the nationals say that is politically unrealistic. That might make President Clinton upset with them or it might upset some corporate or foundation funders."

The strategies employed by the national groups for 30 years have failed, Hermach asserted. "Now they are seeking some kind of redemption and are using the grass roots in order to do so. But they still have no vision, no clear goals or objectives. What do they have to bring to the grass roots? The grass roots have been trying to tell them that and they won't listen."

Environmental historian Samuel Hays doesn't "buy the argument that the national environmental organizations are out of touch with the grass roots." But, he added, people are concerned about local problems and are giving their money to local and regional groups. "That doesn't mean support of the national groups will collapse," he added, but it has limited their growth.

Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and former national president of FOE, noted that over the past 20 years the national groups had invested "huge amounts of money on national staffs knowledgeable in complex issues who developed contacts with Congress and its staffs. Those contacts are now destroyed. Most of them still don't know how to provide field services to groups like us."

But, he added, "they will have to learn or they won't survive."

Veteran environmental news reporter Phil Shabecoff covers Washington, D.C., for High Country News.

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