Near to the Ground

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, April 1999

Near to the Ground
It hasn't been a bad decade for the environment, all things considered. But before you send those huzzahs ù and your checks ù to those far-off groups in Washington, consider this: These days, it's often the local warriors who've got the juice.

In early February, U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck stood behind a podium in Missoula, Montana, and calmly announced an outright ban on new mining claims in the Rocky Mountain Front, a half-million acres of wilderness and grizzly habitat reaching from Helena to the Canada border. His announcement capped almost ten years of surprising news, all in all, about public lands: Wolves returned to the West, mines in Utah and Montana were stopped cold, the federal timber cut in the Pacific Northwest dropped 87 percent.

But the announcement also reflected a sea change in the way environmental battles are waged. The big, well-known green organizations with a presence in Washington ù the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, and their ilk ù didn't mastermind the aforementioned milestones. The driving force behind the Rocky Mountain Front ban was a fourth-grade teacher named Gene Sentz, who pieced together a scattershot coalition of ranchers, outfitters, local officials, and statewide advocacy groups to salvage the Front. Sentz loosed a blizzard of letters and E-mail on everyone he could think of, including Dombeck's senior policy adviser, Chris Wood. "I would get dozens of yellow sticky notes from the guy," Wood says. "He had this authentic, passionate voice."

Passion is a crucial ingredient, of course, but Sentz also had something else: local clout. No one could dismiss him as a self-righteous eco-bureaucrat from back East; this was a neighbor. In an era when some accuse the national conservation shops of corporate elitism and Beltway blindness, the Gene Sentzes of the world are gradually becoming biodiversity's new best friends. We've arrived at the age of the little guy.

While the emerging grassroots outfits all have small-fry budgets and shoestring staffs, they don't necessarily share the same tactics. At one end of the spectrum is Sentz's approach ù the good cop, you might call it. Rather than preaching to the green choir, coalition builders like him recruit at the Rotary Club, the mayor's office, the neighborhood church. Last summer, for instance, the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust sat down with ranchers, county commissioners, and the Bureau of Land Management and hashed out a solution to retire cows from the canyon bottoms of southern Utah's Escalante River. Sounds simple enough, but the cows-in-canyons impasse had languished in Washington for most of the decade.

Bad-cop tactics have their place as well, though. Carefully aimed bluster and outrage can grab headlines, pull in donations, and in some cases force concrete reform. Consider (in the article by John Skow that follows) Arizona's uncompromising Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. With a barrage of lawsuits, the group has secured millions of acres of critical habitat for endangered species like the Mexican spotted owl. Analogously, Oregon's Native Forest Council essentially invented the now widely held zero-cut stance on logging on federal land. The hard-cores aren't shy with their opinions, either ù even about one another. "We oppose anyone who cuts a deal," asserts the Council's executive director, Tim Hermach, "especially spineless, gutless groups without any vision." Uh ... noted.

What grassroots groups all have in common is what they don't do: wait around for big organizations to pick up their banners. Voters passed $7.5 billion worth of local and state conservation measures last November ù nearly 170 in all. Local activists have mastered moves borrowed from well-endowed mega-lobbies: deftly using the courts, the media, the Internet, and the public. Smallness also means a group can pivot and change focus quickly if needed. The Moose, Wyoming-based Wolf Fund, for instance, closed up shop an hour after the first wolf padded out of its pen into Yellowstone in 1995. Interestingly, and ironically, some national green groups are now aping their smaller counterparts by going "multilocal," redirecting funds and staff out of headquarters and into the hinterlands.

You might think of the groups on the following pages as up-and-coming bantamweights. Each is making serious headway on the regional-activism frontier, and none too soon. While the classic green issues ù clean air, clean water, wildlife ù have by no means gone away, new and equally tricky concerns also loom, some with heroes and villains that are less obvious: green space, suburban sprawl, resort expansion, motorized recreation, conservation easements, water rights ... the list goes on. That old bumper-sticker slogan, "Think globally, act locally," may have some life left in it yet.

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