Whatever happened to the environmental movement?

 

It can no longer be denied: The national environmental movement has stalled.

It became glaringly obvious as the movement campaigned against George W. Bush for three years with no noticeable influence on his re-election. It’s proven more subtly by the fact that Congress has passed almost no significant environmental laws since 1980, and by now, whoever happens to be president can jerk around the priorities of key agencies like the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The environmental movement’s halt is important in the West, because this is the movement that set aside all the federal land that distinguishes the region, and it defends the bedrock laws that preserve the qualities of the land, wildlife, water and air.

Bush and the increased Republican majority in Congress are likely to continue rolling back the laws and regulations, to enable more oil and gas drilling, coal-fired power plant construction and other industries that have negative impacts on the environment. So it threatens to become a full rout for the environmental movement.

It’s ironic. There is still widespread public support for protecting the land, air and water necessary for life, but the national groups have trouble tapping into it. For decades, they’ve built their staffs and budgets, but as they’ve grown large, they’ve become a bureaucracy, or enough like a bureaucracy that they’re perceived as one — a movement of clerks filing the paperwork of appeals and lawsuits and official comments, insisting on procedure and technicalities.

The movement has lost the excitement it had during its peak years, in the early 1900s when it invented federal public land, and in the 1960s and ‘70s, when it passed the laws that began protecting many aspects of the environment. It’s easy now for opponents to portray the environmentalist bureaucracy as an inhuman special interest.

To become effective once again, the environmental movement needs to demonstrate that it’s not a bureaucracy. I think the movement can do that, by getting into motion, organizing a Green March on Washington, D.C.

At the peak of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. drew 250,000 people to the Washington Mall in 1963; today the Sierra Club alone has 700,000 members. The environmental movement should be able to rally a half-million people to the Washington mall, possibly even a round million.

It would be a showing of all the different kinds of people who support the goals, many of whom don’t identify themselves by the stodgy and bureaucratic term "environmentalists". This protest march could include Wyoming ranchers who don’t want their land ruined by coalbed methane drilling; residents of Libby, Mont., who are dying of asbestos fibers in their lungs because mining and health regulations were ignored; scientists whose research on global warming and endangered species is being squelched by the Bush administration; American Indians and commercial fishermen who want to save salmon runs; hunters and anglers who want habitat in roadless forests kept roadless; recreation businesspeople and real estate agents who rely on healthy rivers and scenic views to attract customers.

They could link up with people from West Virginia who want no more of their mountaintops lopped off for coal mining, and people from Florida who want the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge saved from oil drilling. From cities across the country, there could be a large contingent of "asthma moms," whose kids are caught in the growing epidemic of lung ailments caused by tiny particulates in emissions from SUVs and power plants.

This wouldn’t be another touchy-feely Earth Day march; it would be more insistent and grounded in real crises. The national news organizations would devote coverage to it, because it would be right under their noses.

If the Green March came together in a big way, it would be inspiring, strengthening the identity of the movement and widening its outreach. It would shore up the Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress, encouraging them to resist the Bush moves. It would make it tougher for Bush to act under the radar screen. Grassroots groups around the West could point to the crowd and say, "We’re part of the whole." It would flesh out the movement with hundreds of thousands of faces and many diverse stories of personal commitment.

Most of all, it would test whether there really is an environmental movement. Will most groups’ members remain content to mail in comments and dues, or, will they march?

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is editor in the field for High Country News in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.