The Wayward West: We're Mad Too...Darn It!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

The Wayward West: We're Mad Too...Darn It!

So what now? Onetime renegade Dave Foreman offers a few suggestions for curing the green malaise.
By Margaret Kriz

With the environmental movement dusting off its pants after a withering brown onslaught, big green groups are listening more closely to their own dissidents, as they try to answer the question of the moment: What to do? A man with something to say on the subject is the original firebrand in flannel, Dave Foreman, who was recently elected to the board of directors of the Sierra Club. The onetime Young Republican, Wilderness Society staffer, Earth First! cofounder, and federal indictee--who in 1991 pleaded guilty to reduced charges in a federal conspiracy trial prompted by Earth First!'s guerrilla tactics--is now devoting his energies to the Wildlands Project, a blueprint for an interconnected system of American wilderness preserves. Here he speaks about Clinton, Newt, the West, and the tools he'd sharpen up for the next generation of greens.

Dave Foreman on the Sierra Club board. Pretty upscale. What's next--frappuccino?

Hey, all my family still live in beat-up mobile homes surrounded by washing machines. As for the bad-boy image, it's an exaggerated one that I admit I helped create. Actually, I've always been a pretty realistic political strategist.

OK, but before you disappear into the boardroom mists, let's not forget that you also created the most radical environmental group in American history. Old buddies must be asking if you've been co-opted.

A few people who are naive politically may ask that. My answer is that I want to protect wilderness, and I choose the means that seem right at the time. In the early eighties the movement needed what David Brower called "institutional CPR." Now I'm trying to articulate a vision of restoring wilderness across North America. Quite frankly, what I'm doing now is more the real "me" than my reputation with Earth First!, but I'm not apologizing in the least for Earth First!

So should we look for the Sierra Club to leap off the gurney and take a "no compromise" posture in defense of what Wildlands wants--greatly expanded wilderness areas?

Well, no positive wilderness bills will pass this Congress. So we're in a position right now of just trying to stop bad bills.

That raises the bigger question: Doesn't the environmental movement need CPR right now? It got caught flat-footed when Republicans overran Capitol Hill last fall, and Wise Use types are raising hell out West. How should greens be responding?

We've got to be less compromising politically. After the election, conservationists were in shell shock. But now people are saying, "Goddamn it, we're going to fight." I see renewed vigor and militancy.

Yeah, but that's been said so often it's boilerplate. What does it mean?

In the sixties and seventies, the movement knew that its power was a mobilized constituency: the citizens. But then it started focusing on Washington, and we wandered away from our old organizing skills. Now we have to mobilize again. The fact is, we outnumber the so-called Wise Use movement in every western state, and they've been using the exact methods that conservationists invented. Just look around. There's really only 100 or 200 people active in Wise Use in each of the western states. But they're really active.

A couple hundred? Quite a few others must be applauding their aims, because somebody is sending the James Hansens to Congress.

These people are being elected in spite of their conservation stands. They were elected by people who are so disgusted with the Democratic Party and Bill Clinton that they wanted to make a statement. Unfortunately, the people opposing the Democrats are largely the tools of extractive corporations and the extremist right wing.

That sounds like wishful thinking. Assuming it's true, how do you turn things around?

You respond to new self-interests and reach out to new constituencies. People are moving to the West because of trout streams, hiking trails, quality of life. It's not in their interest to let cattle tromp through rivers or to maintain socialist giveaways to ranchers, loggers, and miners.

For years environmentalists dismissed Wise Use as a movement with "artificial grass roots." Why didn't people see that something real was going on?

I think they got blindsided. The opposition was smart and succeeded in portraying the conservation movement as just another progressive wing of the Democratic Party. One reason to make conservation bipartisan is to make sure we aren't held hostage again by the Democrats, which is what Bill Clinton was relying on last summer when he signed a bill that waives environmental regulations for "salvage" logging. He essentially said, "I can screw you on the logging bill, because you don't have anywhere to go."

But isn't Clinton your only hope in '96?

Speaking strictly for myself, I think we would be better off today if George Bush had been reelected, because the Republicans wouldn't have taken over Congress last fall if Clinton weren't in office.

Let's try a hypothetical: President Newt.

I'm probably less open to him than I once was, but I don't think we should write him off. I still think he has a more personal commitment to conservation than Clinton.


Really. For Clinton, the Big Outside is where he hits little white balls. Well, sorry, Bill, conservationists might just choose to sit out the presidential race and instead work to elect a better House of Representatives. We ain't gonna take it anymore.

Margaret Kriz covers environmental issues for the National Journal, a Washington, D.C.-based political weekly.

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