Earth Day Rumblings

Posted April 20, 2004 at 6:06pm

Thursday is the 34th annual celebration of Earth Day, and with it will come the requisite assessment of the state of the environmental movement and its relative political strength.

In many ways, it’s strictly an “on the one hand, on the other hand” type of deal.

Most environmental groups would say that things aren’t looking too good with a hostile administration in the White House and an equally hostile regime controlling Congress.

The state of the environmental movement’s political health “always depends in major part upon the president,” said former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), a founder of Earth Day and a longtime official of the Wilderness Society. “This president is unconcerned about the environment and is doing more damage through his appointees to the environment than any previous administration in the some

30 some years since Earth Day.”

On the other hand, many environmental groups believe their members are energized and ready to fight back this election season.

“We are adding our voice to the growing chorus of those against President Bush’s re-election,” said Roger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders for Wildlife Action Fund. “It is not just a coalition of the willing. We will have the strength to cost Bush the election.”

The Defenders for Wildlife were one of several environmental groups that announced in Washington, D.C., Tuesday that they are launching an ambitious television advertising and grassroots campaign to defeat Bush.

That’s straightforward enough. But like many interest groups in Washington, D.C., the environmental movement is often viewed by the media — and thus, the public — monolithically. Distinctions between the groups, and the internecine struggles that pop up among environmental activists, are usually too subtle to be illuminated by the mass media.

There are exceptions, of course. The ongoing battle for control of the board of the Sierra Club has won international headlines lately for the presence of a slate of candidates, led by former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm (D), who seek to limit immigration to the United States as a way of preserving the country’s vital natural resources.

Many Sierra Club supporters have been alarmed that any faction of the conservation movement could be defined by hostility to the United States’ traditional open borders policy, and club insiders have been pushing back against the Lamm group.

But another, largely ignored candidate for the Sierra Club board, Karyn Strickler, calls the debate over immigration “a smoke screen” that club officials have been only too happy to publicize.

Like the anti-immigration candidates, Strickler, a former executive director of the National Endangered Species Coalition, is running as a reformer. But Strickler rails against the corporate interests that are funding the Sierra Club, and is paying particular attention to an anonymous $100 million gift the club received recently — a gift that came, she says, with strings.

Whether Strickler or the Lamm group will be able to oust the ruling majority on the Sierra Club board will be known soon enough. Mail-in and online ballots in the board election are due today. But if ever there were proof that the environmental movement is anything but monolithic, this was a fine example.

Then consider the case of Timothy Hermach, director of the Eugene, Ore.-based Native Forest Council — and, coincidentally, a supporter of Strickler’s in the Sierra Club election.

Hermach, a self-described “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” was a vocal supporter of Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential election, and likes nothing better than needling his brethren in the conservation movement for their reflexive support of Democrats no matter how tepid their record on environmental affairs. He calls the League of Conservation Voters “the League of Compromising Voters” and the Sierra Club “Gang Green.”

“The thing about the Democrats being the lesser of two evils is bullshit,” Hermach told Roll Call recently.

Actually, the League of Conservation Voters doesn’t just endorse Democrats. Like many labor unions, it latches on to moderate Republicans when it can. The LCV recently endorsed Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) for re-election, for example.

But environmental groups like the LCV that play in electoral politics are all too aware that they have to appeal to once, and possibly future, Nader supporters — and others who are disaffected with conventional politics — to succeed. It is no coincidence that the four states where LCV and the other environmental groups will be concentrating their efforts this cycle are places where Nader had a significant showing in 2000: Florida, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin.

LCV President Deb Callahan said that in 2000, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore didn’t court the environmental vote and that it hurt him, even though he was a strong environmental candidate compared with Bush. She said that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive White House nominee, has been doing a good job by tagging on environmental issues to larger ones like the war in Iraq and the economy.

Some Republicans may roll their eyes, but these environmental groups insist that they are non-partisan entities.

Said Brent Blackwell, a lobbyist since 1970 and president of Friends of Earth Action: “It just happens that the president we are opposing is Republican.”

Regardless of what happens politically, former Senator Nelson said there is some reason for environmentalists to be optimistic.

“People are much better informed and much more concerned about the environment now than they were when I organized and planned Earth Day,” he said.

John McArdle contributed to this report.