Last November I ran into my buddy Floyd Satan in the Union Club, a bar in Missoula Montana. We were there with a bunch of local activists to watch the election returns. The place was packed. There were three generations of conservationists, party loyalists and other assorted wing nuts there; from the crusty tree huggers and anarchists to the some of gray haired pillars of the movement. After it was all over, despite the outcome for the national ticket, people were still in a good mood. The Democrats had managed to elect a new Governor and had achieved voting majorities in both the house and senate. The Montana voters also passed a strongly worded anti-heap-leach mining initiative. Across the country it was much the same, where a high percentage of the conservation measures on the ballot passed with comfortable margins. All is not lost in the Red States.
Looking at the maps on the cable news shows, it was obvious that the country was geographically polarized, pitting the ignorant bible thumping bumpkins from the heartland against the big city liberal fornicators. Lines were drawn and many of my friends from the Blue States were peeling off their Kerry stickers and booking flights out of the country. But outside the cappuccino districts of the West Coast and the vast cubical wastelands of Washington D.C., San Francisco and Seattle, the mood was not so dark. Well, the mood was actually much, much darker, but that has more to do with melting ice caps and rapidly diminishing forests, the depletion and pollution of our oceans and the rapidly rising rents than it has to do with who currently occupies the White House. And the wars? I didn’t see either candidate speak more than one short paragraph on such loony fringe issues. Instead they focused on one subject that we can probably all agree on; Cheap Drugs! And the way things are going, we’re gonna need ’em.
It dawned on me that this country is nuts. And the Red States, for all the blame they are so rightly receiving for bringing on the apocalypse, still have better bars. And judging from the crowd present here in the Union Club, the Red States may be where most of the action is. Looking over the last four disastrous years of the Bush administration, it has been the small town lawyers, local activists and collegetown treehuggers who have held the line on protecting our public lands and forests from the timber, mining and grazing industries. A lot of these folks do so in the face of hostile opposition in their own communities from the industry, the government and from law enforcement agencies. They receive only a fraction of the money from the big city foundations and large professional environmental groups. Yet somehow they have fought off some of the most onerous efforts of this administration to go into roadless areas, log valuable wildlife habitat under the guise of “salvage”, and open more public land to oil drilling and cattle grazing.
The next day, Floyd invited me down to Alabama for Thanksgiving. I came out and we had a great dinner at a Middle Eastern Deli, which was about the only place open in Birmingham. While eating my Thanksgiving falafel, Jake called and was still bugging me to fly to D.C. for the big, forest strategy meeting. I didn’t want to go. These things are like meetings of the Elks Lodge. People usually have strange titles and say things like we should be massaging our messaging and developing iconic placed-based proactive engagement scenarios that build capacity in the communities. One learns that at the end of the day, the bottom line is that in order to push the envelope out of the box we have to all be on the same page. It really does drive me crazy sometimes. As usual, I tried to weasel out of the meeting. And, as usual, Jake wouldn’t let me get away with it.
It turns out I wasn’t invited to the really big-dog meeting this year, but we were having the National Forest Protection Alliance board meeting in D.C. because a number of our board members were going to be in town for the big-skull session. The NFPA is a national coalition of redneck and hippie activists, mostly from small towns. Since I was about sick of airplanes, and Floyd had a car, we decided to drive to Washington, D.C. We went by way of Paducha, Kentucky, Bloomington, Indiana, Boon, Asheville, and Charlottesville North Carolina, and Blacksburg, Virginia. Our goal was to get back to Chattanooga in time for Charlie B’s tailgater at the Montana Grizzly’s game against the James Madison University Dukes for the national college football championships.
To make a long story short, we put about 2,000 miles on the car before getting to our Nation’s Capitol. During that time we talked to a lot of people about what they were doing and what they thought we should be doing in the upcoming year. Many of the organizations, such as Appalachian Voices and the Mountain Justice Summer campaign will be fighting mountaintop removal. And there are ongoing campaigns under way stop logging the remaining mature forests in the Southern Appalachian, the most biological diverse temperate forest in North America. Everywhere we went, folks were gearing up for a fight. Out here in the land of Katua Earth First! And the Dogwood Alliance, that usually means direct action. We didn’t see anyone sitting in a cubicle until we reached the District of Columbia.
Now friends, I’m not going to divulge any secrets from these strange lodge meetings I was in or anything, but what I see going on here is close to insanity. Over the past 20 years I have worked and lived in this city for five years. None of the things that happen here have ever seemed normal to me. The way the big groups are organized, led and managed seems based on an antiquated corporate structure that even the big corporations no longer use. They can’t seem blow their nose without hiring a two thousand dollar a day facilitator.
What gets me is that the infrastructure of the environmental movement in Washington, D.C. must cost at least a quarter of a billion dollars a year to maintain. This seems like an Enron scandal ready to explode. Our stock is over valued and we are not being honest with our investors. If you give a dollar to a big ten environmental group don’t be surprised if less than a dime goes to accomplishing the organization’s mission. And even then it will likely go to project managers, media consultants, contractors and other mercenaries. And while I’m thankful for all these folks do, I have to wonder sometimes if we are getting our money’s worth. In my conversations with many current and former DC staffers, as well as with many leaders in the grassroots movement, I think there is a prevailing opinion outside the Beltway that we are not. As one Alabama lawyer put it “I’ve seen better heads on stale beer”. And it does seem to me that we lack professionalism in our fields, and have a low level of expectations and accountability from the small part of the environmental movement that is lucky enough to get a salary and a 401k. It appears that for all the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend here we are not getting all that much firepower.
It is just a fact that most of the best wildlife habitat and wilderness areas are in sparsely populated and socially conservative areas. I think this is why the Red State activists are not crying in their lattes or slitting their wrists like many of my big city leftists friends seem to be. Out here in the heartland, nothing has changed. Being in the Rocky Mountains, the Siskyous or the Southern Appalachians usually means you don’t have the luxury of picking your issues based on polling data or from the learned mouths of consultants. No, the issues usually find you, and you either stand up or you get rolled over. Traveling around the country with Floyd has taught me that there is still a lot of attitude left in this movement, and that we won’t be rolled over that easy. You have to be tough to live in a Red State.
I have also learned over the years that you can’t get anything published anymore unless you have your own web site. And while there seems to be a gazillion websites out there, most of the ones I’ve seen that deal with conservation are about as exciting as drinking flat beer out of a river guides rubber booty. I believe that there must be people out there somewhere who have a sense of humor and are doing something other than cry in their beer over this stupid election. We want to cover the environmental buckaroos that are going to be out there on the front lines; the lowbaggers and the high rollers, the lawyers and the lawless, the scrappy small and the big guys in Washington with bad haircuts. So if you are tired of the standard boilerplate environmental propaganda you get online from the Alphabet Organizations, then this site might be for you. And if you are one of the downtrodden laborers working for the big-ten groups in some airless badly lit cubicle, or some federal employee working in a basement for an agency that is kowtowing to the greedy, pig-dog, multinational corporations instead of protecting our environment, or even if you are a bike messenger, we hope you will send us money.
Mike and Floyd are currently four months into a two-year roadtrip, and will be reporting regularly from the field.
Tune in Next Month for: The State of Oregon vs. MIKE ROSELLE.
MIKE ROSELLE, “Man Without a Bioregion,” is cofounder of Earth First!; the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society and has been instrumental in virtually every famous GreenPeace stunt. “Nagasaki” has lost count of how many times he has been arrested at nonviolent anti-war and environmental Civil Disobedience actions in every region of the country, as well as internationally. His dispatches from the road can be read on Lowbagger.org.