National environmental groups find more success locally Thanks to regional issues, memberships rebound

October 12, 1997|By HEARST NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- For environmental groups, success in the 1990s means giving up the fight to save the world and instead battling for what Americans really care about: things in their own backyard.

"Maybe it's just a 1990s thing, but now people want to know what's in it for them and their kids," says Denis Hayes, president of the Bullit Foundation in Seattle, Wash., which finances small environmental groups.

Any organizations that question this principle have only to look at Greenpeace International to see the price they could pay.

Greenpeace -- known for its high-profile confrontations with industry and its focus on international issues such as saving the whales and fighting nuclear testing -- saw its U.S. membership nose-dive from 1.2 million in 1991 to 400,000 this year.

Also hard hit were revenues, which plummeted to $25 million from $45 million.

According to Ronald Shaiko, a government professor at American University in Washington, D.C., the problems of Greenpeace reflect the changing landscape of environmentalism in the United States.

"In the 1980s, environmental groups had it relatively easy," Shaiko says. "They had tremendous growth in membership as they took on popular issues like fighting industrial waste and [Interior Secretary] James Watt who was every environmentalist's favorite bad guy."

But by the early 1990s, many of the environmental movement's most popular causes had begun to fade.

Air and water quality were improving after the passage of the 1977 Clean Water Act and the 1990 Clean Air Act. Many of the factories that had dumped chemicals into rivers and spewed pollutants into the atmosphere had either closed or installed cleaner equipment.

Finally, in 1992, environmental groups took a crushing body-blow that sent membership and revenues tumbling: the election of President Clinton and environmentally friendly Vice President Al Gore.

"Membership goes up when there's something out there to fight against," notes James Moore, a political science professor at the University of Portland in Oregon.

Shaiko recalls that "with many of the battles won, there was a shift in middle America's priorities back to the local level."

"If people were going to fight at all for environmental causes, they wanted to fight for something tangible, something they could see in their own area."

So while membership in many environmental groups fell in the 1990s, organizations that focused on building strong local chapters and fighting for regional causes grew or at least held onto most of their members.

Philip Kabitis, a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation, says its members want the organization to help them solve the problems facing their own communities, not demonstrate against plants a thousand miles away.

The proposed reintroduction of grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area in northern Idaho and western Montana is an example of how his organization works with its local chapters.

"People in Idaho and Montana wanted the grizzlies back, and our members in the area asked for our help with setting things up and using the Endangered Species Act to get this done," Kabitis said.

With his organization's help, a citizens committee was created that included environmentalists and representatives from the area's timber companies.

Together, the two factions came up with a reintroduction plan that would create a habitat for the grizzlies without destroying the logging industry.

The plan, which would bring in three to five Canadian bears annually for five years, is now being considered by the Montana and Idaho state legislatures.

The wildlife federation's membership jumped from 1 million in 1990 to more than 1.8 million now.

Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of the Sierra Club, says that shifting the group's emphasis back to the local chapters helped slow its loss of membership that started in 1990.

That year it had 630,000 members. By 1993 the number had plummeted to 534,000, but now it's back to 600,000.

An example of the Sierra Club's shift in resources from the national to the local level is seen in its work in the Georgia section of the Okefenokee Swamp.

After discovering in 1996 that the DuPont Co. was planning to mine titanium-bearing ore near the swamp, the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club asked the group's San Francisco headquarters for help.

"In previous years we probably would have relied on pressure from our [national] group and the other major environmental groups on Congress or the state Legislature," Hamilton notes, "but today we look for the support to come from Main Street."

So instead of heavily lobbying Congress and the Georgia Legislature, the Sierra Club's national office helped its local chapter organize demonstrations, including one outside a DuPont stockholders' meeting in Atlanta. The local chapter also launched a letter-writing campaign to the state legislature and to local members of Congress.

"We finally got Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to come down to the swamp and take a strong stance against the mining," Hamilton recalls. "But the pressure for him to come there came from our people in Georgia, not Washington."

In April, DuPont officials announced they would halt the project until a committee made up of interest groups, including environmentalists, determined whether the mining could be done without hurting the swamp.

Such examples show that "with local environmental problems, you can really mobilize people to where they become almost an unstoppable political force," according to Denis Hayes of the Bullit Foundation.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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