The Old Guard

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, April 1999

The Old Guard
Do the big dogs still have bite?

If the nineties have been good for grassroots groups, top-heavy national shops have languished on the vine. Greenpeace USA cut 85 percent of its staff, The Wilderness Society lost over 50 percent of its 1990 members, and the National Wildlife Federation abandoned its marble-friezed Washington office for more modest suburban digs. Seeking to regain relevance, the nationals are changing: replacing overcompensated leaders (the $300,000 salary of former NWF leader Jay Hair was twice that of other CEOs), carving more sharply defined niches (Defenders of Wildlife has primarily focused on large-carnivore reintroduction), and swapping stale legislative agendas for populist rhetoric designed to reengage the public. The national green groups are going local, trying to put their money ù that is, your money ù where it can do the most good.

Defenders of Wildlife
DOW's ranks have more than tripled, from 83,000 to 281,000, since 1993. The popularity is well deserved: This is the group behind the strategy ù and cash ù to pay ranchers for livestock killed by wolves and grizzlies, doling out $23,969 in 1998. Now it's the main heavyweight going after the anti-endangered species American Farm Bureau Federation, which is trying to derail wolf recovery. (DOW executive director Roger Schlickeisen actually dragged a wolf to this winter's Farm Bureau convention.) Support for its Selway-Bitterroot grizzly recovery plan (removing the bears from some federal protection and allowing locals to help manage them) isn't unanimous, but DOW sees that cutting-edge conservation biology ù read "big landscapes" ù requires some local appeasement. Next? Wolves in the Southwest, Washington State, the Adirondacks.

Environmental Defense Fund
After greening up McDonald's take-out containers in the early 1990s, EDF became Big Business's friend, teaming up with United Parcel Service and British Petroleum on recycling and emissions respectively. Sometimes the alliances are progressive (UPS will start reusing packages), but sometimes they raise eyebrows, or worse. In 1997 the EDF got kicked out of a broad endangered species coalition for its side negotiations with industry to soften the act. And believing it couldn't win any other way, the Fund supported some gaping loopholes in the Kyoto global warming accord, largely crafted in-house. Still, the 300,000-member group, which under longtime executive director Fred Krupp has begun to concentrate on "climate, health, biodiversity, and the oceans," scores points for its new L.A. office devoted to inner-city environmental issues and for its zip-code-specific chemical scorecard on the Web ( But the question remains: Are EDF's tactics prescient, or merely lily-livered?

Greenpeace USA
Plummeting revenues and an underwhelmed public led to the closure of ten GUSA offices and an 85 percent staff layoff, and the group subsequently staked out a smaller niche: forests and global warming. Cut two years ago were its 200 fresh-faced canvassers and a cadre of toxics and environmental justice personnel. The survivors bunkered down in, of all places, Washington, D.C. But unlike its sophisticated European mother ship, the American group can't seem to gain political traction. Even so, morale has recovered under director Kristen Engberg, and the outfit is quicker on its feet. It pulled off a nice stunt last summer when a staffer flew to Japan with two residents of a poor Louisiana parish (see Mississippi River Basin Alliance, page 73) to confront heads of a proposed vinyl plant. The company pulled out. Let's hope for more of that, and fewer predictable protests, in the future.

National Audubon Society
"We were a mile wide and an inch deep," says one staffer, explaining why the group is giving up on big-issue Capitol Hill advocacy. "Now we're about migratory birds, period." The agenda reflects the concerns of its half-million birder members: wetlands conservation, habitat protection, and public education. President John Flicker ù a Nature Conservancy recruit the Society hopes will attract TNC-style corporate monies ù has an ambitious, if not quixotic, vision of educating every kid on a local Audubon preserve, and the group has gained in heft what it gave up in D.C. clout, now boasting 20 state offices (with 15 more planned by 2005), up from nine in 1995. Like the Nature Conservancy, it's gone "multilocal," building coalitions in the trench wars over sprawl, flood control, and pollution.

National Wildlife Federation
Finally rid of president Hair, NWF is slowly luring back the politically powerful hook-and-bullet crowd (membership fell from a high of five million during the decade), and with it, its insider credibility. The group took flak for its close ties in the early nineties to Waste Management Inc. and subsequently abolished its "corporate conservation council" in 1996. Now the Federation ù under CEO Mark Van Putten, a veteran Great Lakes grassroots organizer ù is focusing on local activism, certifying "backyard habitats" and diverting 19 percent of its money and staff from the Beltway to state offices. Not that cash is a worry: NWF's merchandising arm (films, books, and magazines like Ranger Rick) pulls in $60 million a year, more than four times the budget of The Wilderness Society.

Natural Resources Defense Council
The movement's brain trust, NRDC grabs headlines with its rigorous scientific reports on global warming, electric-utility pollution, and environmental threats to children. It filed suit to force California to add 65 chemicals to its toxic offenders list and persuaded the Clinton administration to assess the environmental impact of an airport development near the Everglades. But like those of the more conservative EDF, its positions make activists uneasy. Some New York grassroots leaders accuse president John H. Adams of being soft on Superfund compliance (which the NRDC denies), and the group split with consumer and environmental groups to help craft a California utility-industry bailout that included nuclear plants. "It was a judgment call," says staffer David G. Hawkins, "the best deal we could get for long-term clean energy."

The Nature Conservancy
Purists love to complain that TNC has been co-opted: Director John Sawhill's corporate board posts, for instance, have included North American Coal and Newfield Exploration. The Conservancy was in on EDF's talks to soften the ESA and generally supports "no surprises" breaks for developers, for example, granting a California firm indemnity from ESA-based lawsuits in exchange for a 21,000-acre preserve. And don't count on TNC tracts remaining pristine: Deals often involve private logging. What TNC does do well is save land from development. By February, its 1999 purchases already included 185,000 acres of Maine forests for $35.1 million, 16,480 acres of Kansas prairie for $3.5 million, and 100,000 acres of Colorado's San Luis Valley for $6.4 million. With over 300 offices and assets that soared from $916 million in 1993 to $1.6 billion today, TNC is big business. And with its bank accounts, "nature's real estate agent" is expanding its strategy, from merely buying land to working with communities and landowners for larger-scale conservation.

Sierra Club
During the two-year reign of wunderkind board president Adam Werbach, the group's graying membership shaved a decade off its average age (to 37) and reacquainted itself with green America by redirecting 80 percent of its lobbying budget to grassroots work. But not without some internecine squabbling, like the fight over last year's failed fringe-members initiative to support restricting immigration from Mexico (endorsed initially by former executive director David Brower). Two fairly radical policy moves also rattled the 550,000-member group: a push by its chapters to ban commercial logging in national forests, and Werbach and Brower's 1996 platform ù unblessed by some western constituents ù to drain Lake Powell. Still, give this unwieldy tanker credit for steering away from the Beltway. With 45 new community organizers in "strategic media markets," the question is now becoming who's steering the ship ù the grassroots or the central leadership?

The Wilderness Society
Hemorrhaging funds and members for most of the decade, this group became a sad-eyed poster child for the bloated nationals: too dependent on the whimsy of foundations, too removed from Main Street USA, and too entrenched in its image as a group of eighties-style elitists pushing an unpeopled wilderness agenda. It didn't help that then-executive director Jon Roush was caught four years ago logging ponderosas on his multimillion-dollar Montana ranch to cover a divorce settlement. Now, with former Sierra Club fund-raiser William H. Meadows at the helm, it has called for a national wildlands network and is back helping local groups in the field. Meadows knows that successful public-lands battles are being waged in neighborhoods and towns, and advocates are learning to talk to councilmembers, address jobs issues, and frame wilderness within the context of healthy communities.

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