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A Concise History of the Rise and Fall of the Enviro Establishment
How Green Became the Color of Money
by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

In the early summer of 1995, Jay Hair quietly resigned as head of the National Wildlife Federation. This Napoleonic figure had transformed a once scruffy, apolitical collection of local hunting and gun clubs into the cautious colossus of the environmental movement with more than four million members and an annual budget of nearly $100 million. By the time Hair left, the Federation enjoyed more political clout in Washington than the rest of the environmental groups combined.

Hair, a former biology profession who also served as a special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus during the Carter Administration, was the architect of this astounding transformation. Under the firm hand of Hair’s leadership the Federation’s membership doubled and it’s budget tripled. His strategy was simple: market the Wildlife Federation as a non-confrontational corporate-friendly outfit. Hair created the Corporate Conservation Council and forged relationships with some of the world’s most toxic corporations: ARCO, Ciba-Giegy, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Exxon, General Electric, General Motors, IBM, Mobil Oil, Monsanto, Penzoil, USX, Waste Management and Weyerhaeuser. The corporations received the impriatur of the nation’s largest environmental group, while the National Wildlife Federation raked in millions in corporation grants.

The conservation giant showed less deference to its members. In 1975, Dr. Claude Moore, a long-time member, donated a 367-acre tract of forest land in Loudon County, Virginia to the Federation to be managed as a wildlife sanctuary. The land provided rich habitat for an extraordinary number of birds. A Smithsonian guidebook called the area a natural gem.

Then in 1986 the National Wildlife Federation decided to sell the sanctuary to a developer for $8.5 million and use the money to help pay for the construction of the Federation’s new seven-story office building on 16th Street in DC. Outraged, Dr. Moore and other members sued the Federation, alleging it had violated a contract to manage the land as a nature preserve. Moore lost. The land was sold and 1,300 houses constructed on the site.

While Hair was turning the National Wildlife Federation into a corporate-friendly operation, the Wilderness Society was being run by a millionaire from Montana named Jon Roush. Roush had formerly been the chairman of the Nature Conservancy, the most unapologetically pro-corporate of all environmental groups.

In the winter of 1995, Roush was caught selling off $150,000 worth of timber from environmentally-sensitive lands on his own 800-acre ranch in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. The trees went to Plum Creek Timber Company, the corporate giant which a conservative congressman from Washington, Rod Chandler, labeled the “Darth Vader of the timber industry.”

Roush’s first gallant reaction to a probing call was to blame it on his wife, whom he was in the process of divorcing. He later claimed that he need to sell of the timber to pay his property taxes. However, local tax records revealed that Roush owed less than $1,000 a year in taxes on property valued at nearly $3 million.

At the same time, the National Audubon Society was being run by a lawyer named Peter Berle, who commanded an annual salary of $200,000. After he savagely trimmed away the muscle from the Society’s conservation staff, Berle gloated, “Unlike Greenpeace, Audubon doesn’t have a reputation as a confrontational organization.”

How did it come to this? Why in the mid-1990s, when Democrats in control of the government, did the nation’s largest environmental groups, which once stood as such a potent force for radical change, mutate into a servile adjunct to the entrenched powers of Washington and Wall Street?

To uncover the forces that drove this transformation, we have to return to the days of the Nixon admininstration, the glory time of American environmentalism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nation rallied to the cause of cleaning up the country’s waters and air, preserving its remaining wild lands and undimmed rivers, regulating the use and disposal of hazardous chemicals, rescuing wildlife from extinction.

Recall the first Earth Day: April 20, 1970. It was the brainchild of a United States senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who wanted a national teach-in on the environment. Nelson proclaimed that the environment “was the most critical issue facing mankind.” The teach-in became a media event, orchestrated by a young Harvard educated lawyer, Dennis Hayes, who set forth the lofty protocols of the new movement: “Ecology is concerned with the total system?not just the way it disposes of its garbage.”

That first Earth Day?when millions participated in demonstrations, clean-ups, and rallies across the country?has been hailed as the largest organized event in American history and as a symbol of rebellion against pollution and the exploitation of natural America.

It didn’t take Congress long to get the message. The House and Senate speedily decreed a new era in environmental laws: 1970 saw the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the passage of the Clean Air and National Environmental Policy acts, under which protecting earth, air and water legally became a priority for all federal agencies. Environmental impact statements, for example, give “good science” a word in response to corporate projects. Even the Pentagon was required to play along. Then in 1972 came the Clean Water Act, the first pesticide regulations, the Noise Control Act and a series of laws protecting marine animals and coastal beaches. A year later Congress authorized the Endangered Species Act, regulated toxic chemicals and passed new green laws governing the use of public lands.

Throughout the 1970s, environmental standards stiffened, with legislation covering everything from Superfund (to finance clean-up of toxic dumps) to drinking water standards. The environmental decade culminated with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act in 1980, which protected about 110 million acres of wilderness, an area larger than the state of California.

In those halcyon days Congress was well-stocked with conservationists: Ed Muskie, George McGovern, Jennings Randolph, Birch Bayn and Eugene McCarthy. Even in the West, where states were still commonly regarded as resources to be exploited, environmentalism had its champions: Idaho’s Frank Church, Montana’s Lee Metcalf, Arizona’s Morris Udall and Oregon’s Wayne Morse and Bob Packwood, an original co-sponsor of the Endangered Species Act.

In his 1970 State of the Union address, Richard Nixon embraced the green theme, proclaiming that “we must make our peace with nature” and reclaim “the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It’s literally now or never.”

To be sure, that supple politician seized this chance to divert the attention of an increasingly restive middle class from the horrors of his war against Vietnam. Nixon understood that “the environment” could bring together every dreamer green enough to impale an avocado seed on a toothpick and raise it up in the thin light of the Me Decade. The environment might bring the beat legions of of the counter-culture together with the heavier left; it could ally those radicals, seniors, working people and the press. Forthwith Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, to which he named William Ruckleshaus as overseer. Ruckleshaus confronted industry polluters?he was the first federal bureaucrat to do so?before being drafted to his short-lived tenure as Attorney General, where he turned on his plucky boss.

In that heady decade even the Supreme Court sheltered a radical conservationist, William O. Douglas. Douglas believed that nature should be afforded legal rights. In 1972, he drafted a fierce dissenting opinion in the case of Sierra Club v. Morton, arguing in forceful and poetic language that wilderness itself deserved standing in federal lawsuits, so that before “priceless bits of Americana (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, river or a lake) are forever lost or are transformed as to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our environmental, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard.” Douglas further suggested that conservationists who “have an intimate relationship with the inanimate object about to be injured are its legitimate spokesmen.” Thus did Douglas help give birth to both environmental law and, though he is rarely credited for it, the deep ecology movment.

The 1970s saw the green movement mature as a political force with a permanent DC presence, most notably through the creation of the League of Conservation Voters?an organization later headed by Bruce Babbitt?which, for the first time, tracked the environmental voting records of members of congress. Eco-lobbyists, often operating from basements and dingy offices on DuPont Circle, were considered the leanest and most effective on the Hill.

Meanwhile a more confrontational and grassroots-based faction of the environmental community was beginning to take root, spearheaded by the Arch Druid himself, David Brower. (Brower, branded the Arch Druid by John McPhee of the New Yorker, was fired by the Sierra Club because he was too radical, founded Friends of the Earth and was later dislodged from there for similar reasons.)

Using the tactics learned from the civil rights and anti-war movements, this more confrontational wing of the green movement, mustered in groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, deployed aggressive media campaigns, civil disobedience and direct action against the corporations themselves.

The decade of the 1970s closed with another huge demonstration which was in its own way as prodigious as Earth Day. In the wake of Three Mile Island, 750,000 people crammed together on the Mall in front of the Capitol to protest the evils of nuclear power, chanting “Hell no, we won’t glow” along with the likes of Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Jackson Browne, Michael Harrington and Barry Commoner, who had decided to run for president on the green platform of the Citizens’ Party ticket. One of the chief organizers of the event was Donald Ross, a young prot?g? of Ralph Nader, who had helped establish a nationwide network of Public Interest Research Groups on college campuses.

That bright afternoon on the Mall was the last light that shone on the DC-centered green movment. In a decade and a half of Reagan, Bush and Clinton, the environmental corps in  DC ripened into a complacent putty. The corporate counter-attack on greens began in the West with the rise of the Sagebrush Rebels, an amalgam of ranchers, corporate executives, free-market economists and rightwing politicians who decried environmentalism as socialism-by-another-name and as a backdoor assault on property rights.

The Sagebrush Rebels were largely ignored until the election of Ronald Reagan, who bowed to the enthusiasms of Joseph Coors?the leading money dispenser of the far right and owner of substantial mineral claims on federal lands?and selected a suite of Sagebrush leaders to fill important posts in his administration. These Reagan rebels, headed by James Watt (who ran Coors’ Mountain States Legal Foundation) and Anne Gorsuch, called themselves “the Crazies on the Hill.”

Watt, a millennialist Christian and rabid anti-communist, was given the Department of the Interior, which oversees nearly 500 million acres of public land.  He proclaimed he would make the “bureaucracy yield to my blows” and got off to a fast start. Within a matter of months, Watt proposed the sale of 30 million acres of public lands to private companies, gave away billions of dollars worth of publicly owned coal resources, fought to permit corporations to manage national parks, refused to enforce the nation’s strip mining laws, offered up the Outer Continental Shelf oil reserves to exploration and drilling, ignored the Endangered Species Act, and purged the Interior Department of any employee who objected to his agenda.

Watt defended his actions on religious grounds, arguing that conservation of resources for future generations amounted to a waste of “God’s gift to mankind.”

“I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” Watt warned. Use it or lose it.

In spite of his ravings, Watt held on. He even survived his bizarre attempt to block the Beach Boys (in his fevered mind the incarnation of the counter-culture, even though the group had played fundraisers for George H. W. Bush) from playing a concert on the Mall, a stance that provoked an amusing rebuke from Ronald Reagan. But like Earl Butz before him, Watt was undone by the racism that welled up invincibly within him. Attacking affirmative action, Watt complained that he couldn’t set up a panel without finding “a black, a woman, a Jew and a person in a wheelchair.” Although Watt was later indicted in a scandal over the bilking of the Department of Housing, Education and Welfare out of millions of dollars, it was this remark that did him in.

Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, Watt’s counterpart was Anne Gorsuch, a rough-hewn and ignorant Colorado legislator. Gorsuch, who later married Robert Burford, the rancher and mining engineer Watt selected to run the Bureau of Land Management, surrounded herself with advisers from the pollution lobby, including lawyers from General Motors, Exxon and DuPont. Her objective was to cripple environmental laws passed in the 1970s which, she argued, had created an “overburden” of regulations that had “stifled economic growth.”

To lead the toxic waste division of the EPA Gorsuch chose Rita Levelle, a public relations executive with the Aerojet General Corporation, a defense contractor with potentially vast hazardous waste liabilities. At her appointment many of the EPA’s top scientists and administrators promptly quit.

Gorsuch and Levelle left a miasma of suspended regulations, secret meetings with industry lobbyists, waived fines and suppressed recommendations of angency scientists. In one piquant case, Levelle refused?at the request of Joseph Coors?to enforce new rules that prohibited dumping liquid hazardous waste into community landfills. Coors’s breweries disposed of millions of gallons of such waste near Denver.

The climate of cronyism that infected EPA in those days had its source in the highest levels of the Reagan admininstration, which encouraged agency heads such as Gorsuch to pander to its political allies: Coors, Browning-Ferris Industries, Westinghouse and Monsanto.

Gorsuch’s downfall came after congressional investigators requested records of her warm chats with companies under EPA jurisdiction. At the advice of a White House counsel, Gorsuch refused to turn over the documents and was duly cited with contempt of Congress. When she was called to defend herself, the Reagan justice department declined to accompany her to the Hill. Gorsuch resigned in disgust. The insipid and grossly na?ve Rita Levelle was eventually convicted on charges of lying to Congress and spent six months in federal prison.

Less heralded, though more sinister, was Reagan’s appointment of John Crowell as assistant secretary of agriculture, a critical position overseeing the operations of the Forest Service, one of the largest agencies in the federal government. As the former general counsel for Louisiana-Pacific, then the largest purchaser of federal timber, Crowell knew his duty. One of his first actions as assistant secretary was to suppress an internal investigation of his own predatory former employer. Forest Service investigators had concluded that Louisiana-Pacific may have bilked the government out of more than $80 million by fraudulent bidding practices on the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska.

Crowell then ordered the Forest Service to double its annual offering of subsidized timber, much of which was destined for mills owned by Louisiana-Pacific. He temporarily halted designation of new federal wilderness areas and squashed  scientific reports suggesting that relentless clearcutting in the ancient forests of Oregon and Washington would wipe out of the northern spotted owl.

Such useful objectives quickly accomplished, Crowell departed the Reagan administration for a lucrative position at a Portland, Oregon law firm, which specialized in clients such as the National Forest Products Association, which have a profound interest in exploiting the natural resources of the public domain.

The raw ideologies of the Sagebrush Rebellion overreached, but their core message took hold: environmental regulations sapped economic growth. Environmental overkill became the excited talk of Washington PR houses such as Buson-Marsteller and lobbying firms such as Akin Gump, which plotted a strategy of containment of the greens and their dangerous ideology.

Often all that was needed was a kindlier visage. Take the case of James Watt’s replacement as Secretary of the Interior, Donald Hodel. Shortly after Hodel took up his new duties, he went hiking in Yosemite’s meadows with David Brower. Brower returned from the outing to pronouce Hodel an “honorable man,” practically a green. Yet Hodel’s policies at Interior were as pro-industry as Watt’s, and far more effective. During his tenture, the Bureau of Land Management’s timber sales program hit record levels, as did subsidies for the grazing and mining industries. Hodel was the man who objected to the Montreal Protocol for restricting ozone-depleting chemicals, suggesting that to avoid skin cancer from increased ultraviolet radiation, people should simply wear sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts, hats and sunscreen.

Watt, Gorsuch, Levelle and Crowell were magnificent villains for fundraising: direct mail revenues of the top environmental groups exploded tenfold from 1979 to 1981. Green became the color of money, and the rag-tag band of hardcore activists who populated the Hill in the 1970s gave way to a cadre of Ivy League-educated lobbyists, lawyers, policy wonks, research scientists and telemarketers. Executives enjoyed perks and salaries that rivaled those of corporate CEOs. 

By the 1990s, Jay Hair was pulling down a quarter of a million dollars a year for overseeing the National Wildlife Federation and kept his limo engine running at all times, the air-conditioner grinding ozone-shredding gasses at full tilt against the moment Hair emerged from his office on an eco-mission or deal-making sortie.

To be continued.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.   

This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank.