Sierra Club: The Planet--July/August 1996
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The Planet
A Year of Peril--and Promise

It was supposed to be the Year of the Polluter.

As the gavel came down to start the 1995 congressional session, development interests eagerly looked forward to the end of an era. For 25 years they'd been helpless to hold back the steady march of vigorous environmental protection. Now they had captured both houses of Congress, and installed some of the country's most staunchly anti-environment legislators at the heads of pivotal committees. They had Newt Gingrich as House speaker, who claimed a "mandate" to roll back government regulation, and to "devolve" authority to the states -- many of whose governors and legislatures, thanks to November's elections, now shared Gingrich's radical ideology. Best of all, they had a broad and farreaching agenda, the Contract With America, that never even mentioned the environment. By the time the media and the citizenry realized what was happening, the damage would be done.

And the damage would be substantial. Rules that protect our air and water -- and brought the Great Lakes back from the brink -- would be dismantled. Wetlands would be destroyed. Endangered species would be allowed to go extinct. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be drilled, national parks closed, and other federal lands deeded to states to keep or sell to developers. New "takings" and "risk assessment" measures would get government off the backs of polluters, freeing them to exploit their privately owned land without regard for the health, safety or property of the taxpaying public.

Everything was in place for what Gingrich termed his "revolution." Special-interest lobbyists would have unprecedented sway on Capitol Hill and in statehouses, demanding -- in some cases literally writing -- anti-environmental bills. Legislative leaders, in thrall to their big-business campaign donors, would make sure the bills were passed. The president, on the defensive and angling for reelection, would sign them, as would many governors. The media, distracted by contentious debates over welfare, the budget and the evils of big government, would barely notice the assault on our air, water and wilderness. The voters wouldn't notice at all.

It would all be so easy.

Only it wasn't. For the most part, the conservation achievements of the past 25 years remain intact. Not that polluters are conceding defeat, mind you, or that environmentalists can fold their tents. The War on the Environment is far from over.

As 1995 wound down, however, the anti-environmental juggernaut was clearly sputtering. By November, the House Republican Conference was providing tips to members on how to project an image of concern for trees and other living things. By December, Gingrich himself was furiously spinning a kinder, gentler, greener GOP, admitting that Republicans "mishandled the environment all spring and summer" and "moved a little faster than they should." One of his top lieutenants, Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, went further, declaring, "We have lost the debate on the environment." Even the staff director for the House Resources Committee -- chaired by rabidly pro-development Alaskan Don Young, who had vowed in January to ram his agenda "down the throats" of environmentalists -- was forced to concede that "we haven't been able to do what we want."

The story was much the same at the state level. There, too, most measures to gut environmental programs or tie the hands of agencies that run them were ultimately defeated in the legislatures or vetoed by the governors. One was overturned by the voters themselves.

What happened to the Year of the Polluter, in large measure, was the Sierra Club.

Within days of the 1994 elections, Club leaders in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and points between were devising a strategy to combat what was certain to be the most anti-environmental blitz in a quarter-century. By the time the new Congress and state legislatures had taken their seats, we knew what we had to do.

Doing it, of course, would be the hard part.

Stopping the Contract, Spreading the Word

In its broadest outlines, the strategy was reminiscent of a century of successful environmental campaigns. What was new was the magnitude of the threat. For the first time in 40 years, industrial polluters had their hands firmly on the levers of power inside the Capitol. These same special interests were now pulling the strings of legislators in many statehouses as well. Complicating matters was the fact that the so-called Contract didn't explicitly target air, water or wildlands, while state-level bills on takings, risk assessment and "audit privilege" obscured their authors' true intentions. The environment was off the media's radar.

The first step in defeating the polluters' hidden agenda, therefore, was to expose it. That done, we could rally the public to demand that elected officials -- no matter how hostile they might be to the environment -- retain the basic health and safety protections it had come to expect. Finally, by increasing the environment's visibility in the public debate, we could throw the rascals out in the 1996 elections.

We announced that the 104th Congress and the state legislatures were waging a War on the Environment. The Contract, we said, was tantamount to a Polluter's Bill of Rights.

The media ignored us. With rare exceptions -- term limits, notably -- the Gingrich-led House rubber-stamped the key planks of the Contract in its notorious "first hundred days." Takings and risk-assessment provisions led the parade of anti-environmental provisions.

But we, too, were gathering strength. In September 1994 the Club's Board of Directors, responding to financial problems as well as operational ones, had decided to reorganize the organization's unwieldy volunteer structure, reducing its 63 committees to six broad governance committees. The timing turned out to be propitious. By January 1995 the Sierra Club was leaner and more efficient; the conservation structure, especially, had become substantially more combat-ready. Now the new, streamlined Club was mobilized in a massive, comprehensive campaign to defeat the War on the Environment.

We spread the word to our members. We hammered away at the media. We wrote letters to local newspapers, alerting readers to the fine print of the Contract and its state-level spinoffs. We visited editorial boards. We worked with other environmental organizations to put out a consistent, compelling message. By February, opinion leaders like the New York Times and the Washington Post were beginning to recognize the threat. The Contract, which sailed through the House, was bogging down in the Senate. Efforts to etch its anti-environmental goals in state law were similarly being exposed, debated and often rejected.

In March, working with U.S. PIRG and others, the Club launched a drive to get a million signatures on its Environmental Bill of Rights, asserting that all U.S. citizens have the right to a safe and healthy environment. Over the next six months, the petition drive -- whose ultimate objective was to send an unmistakable message to elected officials in Congress and state legislatures -- would provide a way for activists not just to educate their neighbors, but to enlist them in the fight for the environment.

Meanwhile, cracks were forming in GOP ranks. In May, 34 Republicans refused to go along with their party's efforts to trash decades of protection for wetlands, rivers and lakes by approving the Dirty Water Act. The measure still passed in the House, but the defections meant the bill wouldn't be veto-proof. At the same time, President Clinton used his first veto to kill an egregious provision to permit "logging without laws" in national forests.

Clinton would eventually reverse himself in what became environmentalists' most bitter disappointment of 1995. As Club activists fanned out to drum up support for clean air and water in a series of "Save Our Summer" events, Clinton signed into law a revised budget-cutting package containing the phony, ecologically devastating salvage-logging rider. Responding to the presidential flip-flop, the Club and other groups staged a mock "21-chainsaw salute" in front of the White House. The firestorm of outrage over Clinton's cave-in underscored citizens' deep concern for public lands.

That concern was not lost on policymakers at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. With the exception of dinosaurs like Alaska's Young and California Rep. Richard Pombo (R) -- who, months after the conclusion of hearings stacked in favor of ranchers, developers, and other alleged "property rights" advocates, introduced a flamboyantly brainless Endangered Species Act revision -- many in Congress were sensing a shift in the political winds. As for the Clinton administration, its public statements on the environment were beginning to borrow key ideas and phrases from the Sierra Club's own songbook.

Nix It in '95, Fix It in '96

By fall, the environment was front and center in the national debate. Newspapers editorialized against the "war." Television coverage of green issues was widespread, even in the face of the ongoing federal budget crisis. Republican leaders, shifting into damage-control mode, called for a strategic retreat. On Election Day, voters in Washington state trounced a takings measure, providing a taste, perhaps, of election days to come. Americans, it was clear -- even to the generals in the War on the Environment -- wanted to protect their air, water and wildlands.

The generals have learned from the '95 campaign, and are not likely to repeat their blunders in the year ahead. Their assault on the environment, while relying on stealth, was nevertheless clumsy and ham-handed. Dozens of extreme proposals were tacked onto virtually every bill approved by the House; anti-environmental think tanks were equally flagrant in state legislatures. In 1996, the attack is certain to be better camouflaged and thus more difficult to fend off.

Instead of appropriating a symbolic $1 to manage the new Mojave National Preserve -- as it did in '95 -- the Newt World Order is likely to earmark a less eye-catching figure: enough money for signs and maps, say, but not enough to protect wildlife from off-road vehicles. Instead of creating 37 new layers of bureaucracy through alleged "regulatory reform," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole may push a streamlined version with only a half-dozen ways to pollute the water. Moreover, as the 1996 elections near, big campaign donors are apt to grow increasingly impatient for results from the Congress and state legislatures they bought at so dear a price -- roughly a billion dollars -- in 1994.

The extremists' retreat, in other words, is confined to rhetoric; neither the dedication of grassroots activists, nor the clear will of the American people, is likely to sever the legislative leadership's ties to the pollution lobby and its well-heeled PACs. As Club leaders have said since November of '94, only a new crop of legislators will be responsive to Americans' wish for a clean and healthy environment. And only grassroots political action on our part will make that happen.

Between now and November, electing a greener Congress and state legislatures will be the focus of the Sierra Club's work. It is, say Club leaders, the culmination of the extraordinary campaign we've been waging for the past 12 months. We've not only made the environment an issue in the coming election, we've made it plain to voters which side their elected officials are on. And we're just getting started.

As 1995 dawned, we promised to block the Contract With America's anti-environmental provisions and the parallel assault on state-level protections. Despite the odds, and with a few notable exceptions, we delivered. We said we would "change the politics" across America. We did that, too. We devised a campaign strategy which, if we could pull it off, would lay the foundation for a greener, more responsive government in 1996.

Now, on to November . . .


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