Outside magazine, April 1999
The Report Card
Want to know which groups are making the grade? So did we.
By Florence Williams
Founded: 1991 Members: None
Staff: 25 Executive Director: Ian Gill, 43 Salary: $90,000 Address: 1200 NW Naito Parkway, Suite 470,
Portland, OR 97209; 503-227-6225; www.ecotrust.org
A hypercerebral cadre of scientists and think-tankers whose lofty aim is "to foster the emergence of a conservation economy" in the coastal temperate rainforests stretching from northern California to southeastern Alaska. Translation: It crunches data on the region's natural resources and quietly helps entrepreneurs start small green businesses, with a vision of
tying everyone together in a prosperous, soggy ecotopia. Founded by Nature Conservancy and Conservation International defector Spencer Beebe, Ecotrust is, according to one enthusiast, "classic Spencer ù big and bold." Staffers, some of whom, like Beebe, were milled by the Yale School of Forestry, try to design market-savvy solutions to conflicts typically
handled through litigation and legislation ù for example, supporting businesses that vow to cut fewer trees for greater profit by producing valuable, locally made wood products. "The environmental movement needs incentives in addition to disincentives," says Beebe, who now chairs the board of directors. "We're trying to capture a more powerful source of energy
for change, and that's human motivation."
What's up: Last year, Ecotrust partnered with Chicago's Shorebank to create ShoreBank Pacific, which makes small-business loans to clients in the Pacific Northwest. Through revolving credits totaling $7 million so far, the bank's nonprofit affiliate, Shorebank Enterprise, has buoyed 70 entrepreneurs. The group also helped the Haisla
First Nation tribe set aside an 800,000-acre forest preserve in British Columbia.
What's not: Ecotrust's Ivy League pedigree and egghead persona can be alienating, particularly to rural people, referred to by the group as "change agents." Because it takes years, even generations, to rejigger small-town economies (not to mention human behavior), time will tell whether Ecotrust is, as some fear, high on concept and
self-promotion but low on practical substance.
What's next: The Natural Capital Center, an entire shopping mall of environmentally friendly businesses scheduled to open in Portland's spruced-up River District in 2001. Flagship tenant: Patagonia.
The books: A hefty 75 percent of Ecotrust's funding comes from wonky individual donors, including Howard Buffett (Warren's son) and Whole Earth Catalog magnate Peter Warshall. The rest comes from wildly enthusiastic institutions such as the Englehard and Northwest Area Foundations. Budget: $4.6 million in 1998, up 40 percent from 1997.
Spending: 78 percent to programs, 22 percent to management and fund-raising (i.e. overhead).
Typical Donor: A Pacific Rim capitalist who sits on local economic-empowerment boards and guiltily drinks Starbucks organic, despite the fact that it's not "bird-friendly."
Firepower index: Acing the quizzes, but how will they do on the final exam?
Environmental Law Foundation
Founded: 1991 Members: None
Executive Director: James Wheaton, 42 Salary: $60,000
Address: 1736 Franklin St.,
Ninth Floor, Oakland, ca 94612; 510-208-4555; www.envirolaw.org
"We didn't want to be just another rocks and trees and bunnies outfit," says James Wheaton, a former executive director of California Common Cause and founder of this three-lawyer environmental-justice assault team. In 1993, the group used a creative reading of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect East Bay inner-city areas from the ravages of highway construction.
The ruling forced the state Department of Transportation to build soundproof walls around churches and parks, spray water to keep down dust, and restrict construction traffic in places where children play. It was classic ELF style: eschew big-dollar class-action suits in favor of fights that win reform. The organization has also sued to clean up and relocate hazardous
junkyards in West Oakland and to stop underground pipes from leaking gasoline and oil into drinking water in Avila Beach. In 1994, it won a landmark case against a group of trucking companies that, in the process of illegally dumping trash into a wetland, had kicked up clouds of asbestos particles that blew downwind onto a low-income Hispanic neighborhood. The
settlement, which provided the stricken community with a public-health nurse who now educates residents about respiratory problems and screens for asbestos-related diseases, is considered one of ELF's most satisfying victories. Says Wheaton, "We're proud of that one."
What's up: ELF is responsible for helping put the teeth in California's Proposition 65, designed to warn consumers and workers about any toxins linked to birth defects and cancer and to keep those toxins out of California's drinking water. The statute was routinely ignored by both industry and enforcement agencies for the first four
years of its existence. Then the group won $3 million in lawsuits against 30 manufacturers and retailers of lead-leaching kitchen faucets. Wheaton hopes the ruling in this case, the only Prop 65 suit to go to the state supreme court, will do us all a favor by eventually compelling every faucet manufacturer in the United States to make its wares lead-free.
What's not: For an outfit aiming to build bridges between environmentalists and civil-rights activists, ELF is looking decidedly monochromatic these days, with five out of six white staffers and three white board members (two members of color died in the last five years). The group says it plans to hire a minority attorney in the next
What's next: A verdict sometime this year in its suit (filed with the city and county of San Francisco) against manufacturers of smokeless tobacco products marketed to children. ELF also recently joined the city of Los Angeles in suing a major supplier of the city's water meters, which contain high amounts of lead.
The books: ELF knows how to leverage a frugal budget ù about $165,000 in a typical year.
Typical Donor: John Doe, who maintains his anonymity because he'd rather not show up on some oil company's hit list.
Firepower index: A whiter shade of pale, but still sticking it to the Man.
Greater Yellowstone Coalition
Annual Membership: $25
Executive Director: Mike Clark, 53
Address: Box 1874, Bozeman, MT 59771; 406-586-1593; www.greateryellowstone.org
Dedicated to promoting biodiversity in and around Yellowstone National Park, GYC is the alpha male of regional environmental groups. Through aggressive lobbying and litigation, the group has blocked countless timber sales, roads, and mine proposals in southern Montana, western Wyoming, and eastern Idaho and helped nail two of the decade's biggest environmental
victories: the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and the widely publicized defeat of a proposed $65 million gold mine north of the park. But as it's grown, GYC has lost some of its agility, increasingly preferring safer battles (e.g., road expansions and sewage treatment in the park) where it can please locals and faraway donors alike.
What's up: Last January, GYC brokered the transfer of 55,000 acres of highly developable private land in Montana to the U.S. Forest Service. It has also helped stop geothermal and oil-and-gas exploration around Yellowstone and secured refuge land for bison wandering out of the park.
What's not: The group's transition from Old West battles over timber and mining to New West issues of zoning and subdivisions has been awkward, especially since residents of those sprawling subdivisions tend to join GYC. "They fund-raise at houses that should never have been built in the first place," grumbles one purist. On the ironies
of fighting development, staffer Dennis Glick concedes, "We've met the enemy, and the enemy is us."
What's next: The Yellowstone to Yukon project, designed to protect and "re-wild" migration corridors from the park to northern Canada. GYC is also gearing up for a big legal battle to keep the grizzly on the endangered species list.
The books: The group recently scored a $600,000 windfall from the tobacco industry when the proceeds of heiress Doris Duke's contested will (which left everything to the butler) were redirected to conservation. Membership is up 72 percent since 1993, a phenomenon attributed to great brand recognition. The group's loyal members renew at
an impressive 75 percent rate. Budget: $1.5 million in 1998, a 36 percent increase over the previous five years. Spending: 76 percent to programs, 24 percent to overhead.
Typical Member: Retired stockbroker who migrated to Montana and can whup your butt catching and releasing rainbows and browns. (One-third of GYC members live in the three-state area full-time; two-thirds live elsewhere but build second homes or spend vacations near Yellowstone.)
Firepower index: Feeling a little logey from all those welcome-wagon barbecues.
Mississippi River Basin Alliance
Members: 120 groups representing roughly 10,000 people
Annual Membership: $35
Executive Director: Timothy Sullivan, 49
Address: 2105 First Ave. S, Suite 301, Minneapolis, MN 55404; 612-870-3441;
A rainbow coalition of activist groups united to protect and restore the Mississippi River Basin. Talk about a chore: The Mississippi watershed, the world's second-largest in volume, is now so fouled by pollution and clogged with dams, locks, and levees that its ocean delta is a certifiable dead zone. "It's practically a sci-fi landscape," says director Sullivan.
Part government and industry watchdog, part big-think strategizer, MRBA uses a chatty collaborationist approach to treat a host of river ills ù everything from sedimentation and shrinking shellfish populations to the chemical-plant corridor in industrial Louisiana known as Cancer Alley. In 1998 the group publicized pork-barrel legislation that would have
authorized designs for expanded locks on the river (the bill was defeated), and it continues to apply constant pressure to the Army Corps of Engineers as the agency reevaluates the cost and impact of its Kafkaesque flood control methods. "The Mississippi has always been treated piecemeal," says Sullivan. "A holistic, comprehensive agenda is the only way to go."
What's up: In a major bureaucratic coup last year, MRBA convinced seven regional EPA offices to adopt specific river jurisdictions, thereby closing gaps in management. Also in 1998, MRBA helped a black community in Convent, Louisiana, fend off a proposed $700 million Japanese vinyl plant by giving computer grants and a crash course in
organizing, research, and media relations.
What's not: One might understandably wonder if a staff of five can keep track of a 2,470-mile river that flows through ten states and drains two-thirds of the continental United States. And with member groups as diverse as Minneapolis's Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy and Jesus People Against Pollution, based in
impoverished Columbia, Mississippi, not everyone shares the same agenda.
What's next: More national environmental groups and foundations focusing on the plight of the beleaguered basin in light of new media attention. This will likely mean more funding, more staff, and more muscle for MRBA.
The books: Small but growing. Most of the money comes from foundations, though MRBA is drawing more individual donors; Jimmy Buffett and New Orleans mayor Marc Morial are true believers. Budget: $336,000 in 1998, up 100 percent from 1997. Spending: 72 percent to programs, 28 percent to overhead.
Typical Member: There isn't one; this is a group that's got diversity down. Its 15-member board includes not only whites and African-Americans, but also two American Indians, a Cajun, and a 17-year-old high school student.
Firepower index: Gets everyone to sit at the same table by not throwing a lot of food, but can only afford the eight-piece mini-bucket at KFC.
Save Our Wild Salmon
Members: 52 member groups representing 750,000 people
Annual Membership: $200 per organization
Executive Director: Pat Ford, 50
Address: 975 John St., Suite 204, Seattle, WA 98109; 888-235-4174;
Its motto sounds like the tag line for a bust-heads-while-preserving-biodiversity flick from Steven Seagal: "Extinction is not an option." SOS's mandate is, thankfully, a bit more refined: building a wide alliance to perforate some of the fish-hostile dams along the colossally mismanaged Columbia River Basin. SOS takes the Greater Yellowstone Coalition's
single-ecosystem approach one step further by narrowing its focus to a single genus: salmon and steelhead. SOS lobbies politicians and greases a skillful media campaign that makes conservation science accessible to the lay public. Its simple yet radical proposal to remove dams is now a common refrain, and the profoundly uncuddly fish have become a cause
c‰lˆbre. More than a hundred subspecies of salmon have disappeared from the Pacific Northwest in the past century, and an estimated 150 more will be gone in the next few decades. To underscore the urgency of its mission, SOS vows to disband once its goal of restoring harvestable levels of fish to the Pacific Northwest is met. "We don't consider ourselves
permanent," says director Ford. "We just want to stick around long enough to make some calculated surgical strikes. Then we can go out of business."
What's up: SOS's recent "Citizen's Strategy," aimed at restoring watersheds all over the Northwest, was picked up by regional and national media and distributed in Congress, where SOS hopes to erode some of the entrenched support of the Bonneville Power Administration. The document details plans for improving water quality, rewatering
streams, managing fish harvests, and, yes, dismantling a few monster dams.
What's not: Building a strong coalition takes time. Meanwhile, in 1996, a single salmon shimmered its way back to Idaho's Red Fish Lake. "This collaboration stuff may be useful, but it's background noise," says Boise natural resources consultant Ed Chaney. "In this instance, you've got to be more radically confrontational."
What's next: Lewis and Clark bicentennial fever throwing SOS's agenda into high relief. Hoping to piggyback on the momentum of the upcoming 2004 anniversary, the group just launched a $2 million campaign to retire four federal dams on the lower Snake and re-plumb the 70-mile-long John Day Reservoir on the Columbia.
The books: In an effort to avoid financially competing with its member groups, SOS solicits almost exclusively from foundations. Budget: $548,000 in 1998, up 40 percent from 1997. Spending: 80 percent to programs, 20 percent to overhead.
Typical Member: A weekend angler who fishes Portland's Willamette River with an Orvis rod and a Ketchum Release tool.
Firepower index: Needs to start swimming upstream faster.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Annual Membership: $30
Staff: 15, including two permanent Washington lobbyists
Executive Director: Mike Matz, 39 Salary: $54,000
Address: 1471 South 1100 East, Salt Lake City, UT 84105; 801-486-3161;
Relentlessly confrontational, SUWA has the stamina to keep its eyes on the prize: federal protection for millions of acres of southern Utah canyon country. "Our approach is pretty much no-holds-barred," says director Matz. Which means endless rounds of litigation and lobbying, a scenario that could rightly be titled Sisyphus Goes to Washington. The group scored big
in 1996 with the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and has a reputation as a sort of fighting Johnny Appleseed, coaching other regional groups in the art of grassroots galvanizing. A media-savvy, direct-mail-spewing bulldog, SUWA put redrock country on the national radar, pulling in megabucks and members from all 50 states.
What's up: SUWA's members are as dogged as the staff, firing off letters to Congress, hosting neighborhood slide shows, and circulating petitions. Over the last two years, volunteers spent 55,000 hours mapping 22 million acres of BLM land to determine its fitness for protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Last year, the group
successfully sued the National Park Service to close Canyonlands National Park's fragile Salt Creek to jeeps.
What's not: Ironically, the colossal achievement SUWA takes credit for ù Grand Staircase-Escalante ù could be a Pyrrhic victory. By allowing itself to get swept up in Bill Clinton's election-year PR tsunami, SUWA ended up with a park that even Republicans could love, where grazing, off-road vehicle use, and oil and gas
exploration will continue unless the alliance can talk the BLM into choosing a "maximum-conservation" management plan this summer. What's more, the group's combative tactics have antagonized southern Utah's conservative rural communities. "To polarize arguments like they do is useless," says renowned Canyonlands ecologist Jayne Belnap. "They just piss people off."
What's next: Yet another congressional go-round of the proposed America's Redrock Wilderness Act, calling for protection of nine million acres ("We're prepared to drag it out forever," says Matz), and a fight against R.S. 2477, a 130-year-old federal roads statute that could prevent pristine areas from qualifying as wilderness.
The books: At the height of its campaign against coal mining on the Kaiparowits Plateau in 1996, SUWA brought its ranks up to an impressive 22,000 members, though that figure has since sagged a bit. Between dues and donations, members contribute a whopping 74 percent of revenue. Budget: $1.5 million in 1998. Spending: 75 percent to
programs, 25 percent to overhead.
Typical Member: A well-heeled New Yorker who clutches Ed Abbey scribblings on subway rides to the climbing gym. (Half of SUWA's members live outside the Four Corners states.)
Firepower index: A courageous flyweight who can't coldcock Mike Tyson but might fight the sonofabitch to a draw.
Vermont Land Trust
Annual Membership: $25
Executive Director: Darby Bradley, 53
Address: 8 Bailey Ave., Montpelier, VT 03582; 800-639-1709;
The VLT is the ur-land trust. In 22 busy years, it has purchased the development rights to some 184,000 acres of maple-and cow-studded splendor, more than 3.5 percent of the state's private land. The group goes gooey over the term "working landscapes," in which small-scale farmers and loggers help keep the big evil S ù subdivision ù at bay. Director
Bradley, an attorney specializing in land-use issues, knows how to woo a wide array of constituents, from hunters to politicians to Vermont's Birkenstock-clad army of organic gardeners. Like donors and fellow Vermonters Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, he has a good-guy image that doubles as a marketing tool. The VLT model has inspired some 1,100 state and local land
trusts nationwide, ushering in a new era of creative conservation realty. Even the Wall Street Journal is in a glow, declaring, in response to recent VLT purchases, "the environmental movement has taken a new turn."
What's up: Last year VLT helped broker the largest private-public land conservation deal in the nation's history. Along with the state and the Virginia-based Conservation Fund, the group purchased development rights to 133,000 wooded acres in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom belonging to the Champion International paper company. In a smaller
1997 deal with Atlas Timberland Co., VLT helped to buy 27,000 acres in the Green Mountains.
What's not: Some wildlands advocates complain that VLT's recent Champion deal allows commercial logging to continue on 70 percent of the parcel, as well as the unlimited use of 400 miles of trails by snowmobilers. "Wilderness interests weren't invited to the table [of the Champion sale]," gripes Jim Northup, director of the
Burlington-based Forest Watch. "They didn't give enough attention to creating ecological reserves as part of the program."
What's next: More hands-on stewardship. VLT is considering purchasing and running a community-supported organic farm.
The books: Mind-blowing for such a small group. Half of the revenue comes from big donors like the Freeman Foundation and the John Merck Fund, another quarter from state grants. Budget: $12.7 million in 1998, which VLT needs for its ambitious agenda. Spending: 69 percent to programs, 31 percent to overhead.
Typical Member: A flannel-clad, Palm Pilot-wielding Middlebury alum with a few designer Holsteins out by the pond.
Firepower index: Like Congo's licentious but highly evolved bonobo ape, VLT specializes in making love, not war, in order to get its way.
Founded: 1991 Members: 1,000
Annual Membership: $24.95; $30 for "eco-warrior" status
Executive Director: Lamar Marshall, 50
Address: Box 117, Moulton, AL 35650; 256-974-6166;
"Those woo-woo vegetarian urban eco-weenies are afraid to take a stand against industry!" cries the litigious director of Wild Alabama. A sign on Lamar Marshall's cabin reads, "Trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again," which pretty much sums up his sawed-off style of advocacy. Dedicated to preserving Alabama's rich biodiversity ù it has more
species of snakes, fish, and aquatic snails than any state in the nation ù the group takes credit for temporarily halting logging on 50,000 acres of national forest land and won a moratorium on 20,000 more acres. Its courtroom efforts also won endangered-species status for a fish called the vermilion darter and six species of snail. But the group's most creative
work by far is its bimonthly magazine, Wild Alabama, a read replete with woodsy how-to (flint-knapping, anyone?) and government satire. A convenience-store owner and former state fur-trapping champion, Marshall pulls some unlikely cohorts into his ring, including American Indians (Marshall claims to be one-sixteenth Cherokee), Bible thumpers (he declares himself a
creationist), and noted biologist E. O. Wilson, who calls the group's magazine "riveting."
What's up: "We sued Bruce Babbitt three times yesterday!" crows Marshall. "Litigation is our business, and business is good." Following a Wild Alabama lawsuit last fall, Alabama became the only state requiring local EPA enforcement of new water-quality standards for aquatic species. Other suits are pending against the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.
What's not: It's no surprise that many activists probably don't want Marshall to meet the kids, much less the opposing side. ("He's not likely to be invited to every consensus-based roundtable," says Ken Wills of the more staid Alabama Environmental Council.) Last year Marshall made an enemy of former Governor Fob James, Jr., with his
cartoons of the Republican pol pocketing money from a family-owned landfill.
What's next: Wild South, Wild Alabama's expansion plan, aimed at protecting wilderness from Virginia to east Texas. The group is also teaming up with the higher-profile Wildlands Project, headed by former flamethrower and Earth First!er Dave Foreman, to develop a forest conservation and management plan for Alabama.
The books: Patagonia, the Turner Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and other organizations supply 44 percent of its capital. Sales of Wild Alabama account for 16 percent. Budget: $300,000 in 1999, up 100 percent in five years. Spending: 76 percent to programs, 24 percent to overhead.
Typical Member: A 'bama boy who doesn't want to see the hardwood grove of his first deer kill turned into a loblolly monoculture.
Firepower index: Please keep fingers and small children away from the cage, especially during feeding times.