Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
How Club's Grassroots Activism Hit Political Paydirt

by Carl Pope Executive Dirctor

"April is the cruellest month," observed T.S. Eliot. The leaders of the 104th Congress - though struggling to put a happy face on ignominious defeat - would have to agree. For the Sierra Club, though, this past April ranks as one of the most glorious months ever.

The kickoff to Earth Week, April 13, saw the single largest grassroots mobilization in the Club's entire history - the culmination of an 18-month-long campaign to inform, educate and involve the American people in defeating Congress' War on the Environment. Citizens (Club members and nonmembers alike) turned out en masse to rally and to go door-to-door with the Club's message. In Denver, 150 volunteers were met by the lieutenant governor in a freezing rain. In Arkansas, 21,000 families in Little Rock and Fayetteville were touched by the biggest environmental event in the state's history. In Sioux Falls, S.D. - a town with just 86 Club members - 135 volunteers held a rally that drew all the local media. Great Falls, Mont., with 54 Club members, managed 55 volunteers and media coverage.

But the media weren't the primary messengers. We were. More than 10,000 volunteers in 100 cities reached out to their neighbors with Sierra Club doorhangers exhorting them to "Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our Future." In Minneapolis, 200 volunteers reached 30,000 households. In the San Francisco Bay Area, volunteers organized by the local chapter distributed 20,000. Marylanders got to 41,000 families. You get the idea. Between the extensive press coverage, our paid radio spots, and our direct outreach efforts, perhaps 25 million Americans heard the Club's message in that one week alone. Ten days later, it showed. After 10 months of wrangling between Congress and the Clinton administration over funding levels and environmental enforcement, we hit political paydirt: Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and the rest of the congressional leadership blinked. No, more than blinked. They caved.

From the earliest days of this Congress it's been clear that the greatest peril lurked in the leadership's plans to undercut environmental programs by defunding them, or by inserting riders into fiscal bills to block their enforcement. "Logging without laws," the so-called salvage rider that passed last June, was their first and, as it turned out, their main success. But as 1995 went on the '96 appropriations bills, the debt ceiling bill, and eventually even the continuing resolutions - which kept the government operational, for the most part, in the absence of a budget - were loaded up with dozens of anti-environmental riders. Seventeen were aimed at the EPA alone.

Twice the government was shut down. Repeatedly Bill Clinton vowed to veto fiscal bills that would undermine environmental protection. Repeatedly he was pressured from inside and outside his administration to compromise. Over and over the Club and its allies rallied the American people to urge the president to stand firm. By the end, major newspapers habitually ran editorials decrying Congress' backdoor attacks on environmental enforcement.

The Club and its allies used every known tool of mass mobilization, and invented a few new ones for good measure. Public opinion turned against the riders, the new Congress and, increasingly, against the GOP itself. Republican advisers and pollsters urged the leadership to rethink its anti-environmental posture. In response, Gingrich appeared on …RLarry King Live" with a boa constrictor, while many of his colleagues planted trees and staged photo ops at recycling centers.

The posing was in vain. Clinton stood his ground, and Congress relented. It agreed to restore virtually all the environmental funding sought by the White House, and to eliminate 15 of the 17 EPA riders. Only a single Interior Department rider, one allowing construction of a huge telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, survived.

U.S. politics does not lend itself to pure outcomes, and the final budget deal is no different. Its most grievous flaw is that it leaves in place last summer's salvage logging rider. But it is nonetheless a monumental defeat for the polluters and special interests who bought the last election, and for the congressional leaders they picked to push their agenda. Considering the price they paid for the privilege of despoiling America's environment, polluters can only regard this Congress as a billion-dollar lemon.

Money and ideology are a persistent combination, of course, and the extremists will be back. What is most impressive about our budget victory is our own persistence in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds - how, time and again over the past year-and-a-half, the Sierra Club came up with new energy, new strategies and new ways to reach out and rally the American people.

More than that, we've done it in a way that builds for the future. The Club is far stronger today than we were 18 months ago. The public is more aware. The press is better informed. In some regions of the country we have thousands of new volunteers. We've compiled detailed voting records for the members of the 104th Congress, and we know how to use them - we're far more sophisticated about communicating with the public than ever before.

The Sierra Club can often be frustrating for volunteers and staff alike. And admittedly, a big-tent, broad-spectrum organization like the Club needs better planning, more meticulous communication, and increased emphasis on respect and civility if we're to thrive and succeed. But when it all comes together, as it has in recent weeks, it's hard not to sit back and marvel.

So let's take a moment to pat ourselves on the back - and then get back to work.

By continuing what we started less than two years ago, we can ensure that, for polluters and their friends in Congress, November '96 will be an even crueller month than April.


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