Can Southwest activism and money coexist?

  • Old-growth ponderosa pines, part of the La Manga sale in New Mexico

    Robin Silver

They lobbied. They staged sit-ins. They crashed town hall meetings. They chained themselves to trees. They scrounged for pennies and sued every despoiler of public lands they could find.

The guerrilla tactics of the Southwest's disparate environmental activists have worked. They have contributed to an enormous decrease in logging in the region's 11 national forests: Less than half the timber that fell there in 1990 falls today. And a blockbuster lawsuit last year forced the Forest Service to halt virtually all logging in the Southwest until federal biologists study its effects on the threatened Mexican spotted owl (HCN, 10/30/95).

But the activists knew their victories were temporary. Without permanent protection, the last ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests could still fall. They also realized that enduring change in forest management required public outcry to force the hands of reluctant politicians and Forest Service administrators. And to accomplish that they needed something they never have enough of - money.

So last year the leaders from 50 groups, including the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and the Forest Conservation Council, banded together under the name The Southwest Forest Alliance. They went after the big bucks, and they hit the jackpot.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has promised a two-year, $500,000 grant to the Alliance, if it can come up with a matching $425,000 - a sum it is well on its way to raising. With roots in oil money, the Philadelphia-based foundation has assets of $3.8 billion and hands out $20 million annually to environmental causes.

Officially, the Pew grant seems a godsend for a coalition that combines the most confrontational, activist organizations in the Southwest with the environmental mainstream. While it's clear that the money will buy the activists more sophisticated tools, the jury is still out on what effect $1 million will have on Southwestern environmental activism.

The good news

Peter Galvin, a veteran activist and the Alliance's coordinator, says the Pew money has already changed the way forest activists are working - for the better. "For us in the Southwest, (the Pew money) was a major impetus for cooperation," says Galvin. "We're networking with each other a lot more closely."

Galvin believes the Alliance will be able to get the Forest Service to adopt new forest plans which protect big trees and restore large areas to old-growth conditions. Already, a six-person steering committee - under the oversight of a 16-member board of directors - has used Pew money to finance an ambitious effort to map all the surviving patches of old-growth forest in the Southwest, underwrite studies on everything from cattle grazing to mistletoe, and lay the groundwork for a door-to-door public-education campaign.

The Alliance will eventually hire several people to spearhead grassroots education on Southwestern forests, something the individual groups could never afford in the past, says Robin Silver, perhaps the most aggressive activist in the region and a steering committee member. Their first public relations blitz will hit airwaves and doorsteps in the Southwest as well as the pages of the New York Times around tax day.

And the reservations

But Pew has been charged with redirecting environmental agendas in the past. After the entire Endangered Species Coalition staff was fired last summer during a stormy period between Pew and Washington, D.C., environmentalists, New Mexico activist Sam Hitt compared the foundation to "a death star in the solar system. They set up their own gravitational field and everyone begins to revolve around them." (HCN, 10/16/95)

Others say that when environmentalists leave the grassroots and hit the big time, they set themselves up to be characterized as urban elitists by their opponents - a tactic the Wise Use movement has used with great success. And some Northwestern environmentalists complain that the Pew-supported Ancient Forest Alliance accepted compromise forest plans that allowed logging to continue in many of the region's old-growth areas.

"The ultimate result of Pew is it removes the spine from the environmental movement," says Tim Hermach, executive director of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore. "It compels them to become more pragmatic and complicit. I say it's a form of prostitution."

Andy Stahl of the Oregon-based Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics pointedly disagrees, noting that Pew money played an important role in the recent reduction of logging on the Northwest's public lands from 5 billion to 1 billion board-feet a year. The foundation underwrote some of the early spotted owl lawsuits and funded the media blitz that primed President Clinton to come up with his Northwest Forest Plan. Stahl says grassroots and mainstream environmentalism can work symbiotically.

"Passion alone isn't going to change a region's whole economy and social structure, as we did in the Northwest," says Stahl. "It isn't going to go up against a political and industrial infrastructure which was dominant for 100 years. You need scientific and legal skills as well. I don't know how you're going to get those skills without paying for them ... I'm much less interested in the purity of (a group's) environmental rhetoric than I am in the effectiveness of their actions."

But the criticism Pew stirred up in the Northwest is echoed in the Southwest. John Talberth, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Conservation Council and a member of the Alliance's steering committee, believes the prospect of Pew money has already diverted the efforts of the Southwest's most successful activist groups.

"Going to the urban areas and doing massive outreach and door drops looks good in the media, but (they're) not necessarily things that we would have seen as important on our own," says Talberth. "As we get into the second and third year of the campaign, a lot of the things the campaign wants to do aren't things I would have chosen to do."

Talberth's critique exemplifies the strains that arise between fiercely independent activists as they seek common ground. Talberth's organization became embroiled in a publicity firestorm when restrictions on firewood gathering in the Carson National Forest were triggered by a lawsuit filed by him and the Forest Guardian's Sam Hitt (HCN, 12/25/95). The Alliance mostly stayed out of the issue, reasoning that to pit environmentalists against poor people needing firewood could only benefit the timber industry.

Tom Wathen, Pew's program officer for the environment, says charges that the foundation derails environmentalists' agendas stem mostly from differences within the activist community itself.

"Pew funds forest activists in the Southwest and other regions because we agree with them, not because they agree with us," says Wathen. "We (often) get put on one side or the other, and we're not seeking to be on either side."

Most of the Alliance members insist that the Pew Foundation has attached no strings, exercised no control, and dictated no agendas. What's more, the activists who founded the Alliance say they would walk away from the money the minute Pew tried to force them to accept anything in which they didn't believe.

"We do not intend to do anything we don't believe in," says Galvin. "If anything, Pew has been extra cautious in all our dealings about offering even constructive criticism. Maybe it's a response to some of the criticism about them. We just don't feel any pressure."

Adds Robin Silver, a Phoenix-based activist whose résumé includes the co-founding of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, bringing the Mexican spotted owl lawsuit that shut down logging in 11 national forests, and helping make a national issue out of the Mount Graham telescope: "The Alliance is not set up to be the Teflon tip of our artillery shells - it's set up to be the largest coalition ever established in the Southwest to save the last of the largest trees. We've been able to fight this battle with minimal resources in the past and we're not going to compromise our stances when there's too little left for it even to be a consideration."

The writer works out of Phoenix, Arizona.

For more information, contact the Southwest Forest Alliance, P.O. Box 1948, Flagstaff, AZ 86002 (520/774-6514); The Pew Charitable Trusts, One Commerce Square, 2005 Market St., Ste. 1700, Philadelphia, PA 19103-7017 (215/575-9050).

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