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How Green Became the Color of Money

Munich in the Big Woods.

The Wilderness Society was founded in 1930 by three early heroes of the environmental movement: Aldo Leopold, Benton McKaye and Robert Marshall. MacKaye and Marshall were both socialists, who believed that corporate-owned forest land should be seized by the federal government. Leopold was the father of modern forest ecology and author of Sand County Almanac, the classic text on “land ethics.”

The modern Wilderness Society, with its cautious political approach and $20 million a year budget, bears little resemblance to the lean and radical organization started by Leopold and Marshall. The Society’s board of directors is culled from the elite ranks of corporate America and the social register. In the 1990s, the board included John Bierworth (former CEO of defense contractor Grumman International), David Bonderman (CEO of Continental Airlines), oil heiress Caroline Getty, Christopher Elliman (Rockefeller heir) and Gilman Ordway (heir to the 3M chemical forture).

The Wilderness Society’s staff spends most of its time raising and reinvesting money. Indeed, during the Clinton era the membership development, operations and financial staff of the Wilderness Society was three times the size of its conservation staff. Even so, in 1993 the Society shoveled out nearly $2 million in contracts to outside telemarketing companies to do additional fundraising.

An analysis of the Wilderness Society’s stock portfolio in the mid-1990s revealed an unsavory map of strange investments for a putative environmental organization. For example, the country’s self-proclaimed defender of America’s last pristine lands owned thousands of shares of stock in Caterpillar, Cummins Engines, John Deere, Eaton and Ryder, corporations that build bulldozers, logging trucks, diesel engines and other heavy equipment used to invade roadless areas. They also held investments in defense and energy companies, such as AMP Inc, Baltimore Gas & Electric, Consolidated Edison, FPL Group, General Electric and Loral.

The Society occupies sumptuous quarters on 17th Street in DC. The halls, dressed in original prints by Ansel Adams, amplify the man-made connections between nature’s grandeur and plutocrats’ splendor. According to its annual report, starting in 1997 the Wilderness Society began paying $6 million a year for the DC Headquarters, nearly a third of its annual budget.

Behind such Beltway greens as the Wilderness Society now stand the real power brokers of environmental politics: the shadowy syndicate of foundations known as the Environmental Grantmakers Association, which annually channels more than a half billion into the coffers of the nation’s major green groups. Oil is the color of money here.

The Pew Charitable Trusts entered the world of environmental funding cautiously. In 1994, Pew staffer Tom Wathen rejected a modest grant proposal by a broad swath of greens saying, “I like it, but my board’s very conservatie and they’d never approve it.” The proposal was for a campaign to end the logging of native forests on public lands.

Yet the big foundations no longer function simply as dispensers of cash to green groups. At the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s 1992 retreat on an island in Puget Sound the Association’s president at the time, Donald Ross, boasted that the foundations were quite capable of running their own environmental campaigns. “I think funders have a major role to play,” Ross said. “And I know there are resentments in the [environmental] community towards funders doing that. Well, too bad. We’re players and they’re players.”

Sharing Ross’s vision of a more interventionist role for foundations was Pete Meyers, who ran the W. Alton Jones Foundation in the 1990s. In 1991, Ross and Meyers decided to develop a national campaign to protect the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. They called their manufactured group Americans for the Ancient Forests and proclaimed that their mission was to pass legislation in congress preserving the last of the old-growth trees.

To oversee their operation, Ross and Meyers picked Bob Chlopak, who ran the elite DC lobbying firm of Cholpak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates. Chlopak’s major clients included General Electric and the Office of the President of Mexico. In the late 1980s, Cholpak served as the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign, where he forged close ties with many Democratic Party power-brokers, including Al Gore and James Carville.

The Environmental Grantmaker’s Association’s network of foundations seeded American’s for the Ancient Forests with $2 million, some of which was diverted from hungrier and more militant green groups, such as the Native Forest Council and Project Lighthawk. When the money began to roll in Chlopak trilled to an Oregon environmentalist: “This contract has bought me my New Jersey beach house.”

In theory, Chlopak was supposed to defend the forests in the strong language of dollars. Instead he counseled greens against pressing the Clinton administration too hard.  Finally he convinced them not to pursue passage of the very bill for which his organization had been created. Chlopak counseled that the Clinton administration should be given the latitude to develop its own plan for the management of the spotted owl and the Northwest’s old-growth forests, the plan which would become the infamous Option Nine.

When Bruce Babbitt demanded that environmentalists give up their court injunction and permit logging to restart in spotted owl habitat, Chlopak, instead of lobbying the administration to back off, urge the greens to capitulate to the deal. When the dazed greens acceded, Chlopak shut down the offices of Americans for the Ancient Forests. Mission accomplished.

Activists in the Pacific Northwest are only now beginning to appreciate the extent of Chlopak’s betrayal. The truth began to emerge shortly after the recently-elected Republican congress debated legislation purporting to slash $20 billion out of the 1995 budget, the so-called Rescissions Bill. When the legislation finally emerged from the floor of the House, it was loaded like a MIRV warhead with anti-environmental amendments aimed at everything from institutionalizing current livestock grazing practices to lowering drinking water standards to lifting a court injunction against logging on the Tongass National Forest. The most threatening of all of these measures was the Salvage Logging Rider, cooked up by Don Young, Mark Hatfield and Slade Gorton.

The rider promoted the traditional bogus claim of a “forest health crisis” in which millions of acres of public forestland were either burned over, decadent or diseased—a situation which, the legislators argued, could only be cured by increased logging, chainsaw surgery. The Salvage Rider mandated that the Forest Service sell 5 billion board feet of timber (twice the amount sold in 1993). The measure contained sufficiency language that exempted all of those timber sales from compliance with environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, and shielded them from any possible legal challenges brought by environmentalists.

Big timber backed the bill with messianic vigor, while the environmental lobby dubbed it the “logging without laws” bill, confident it would meet with a stern veto from Clinton. After all, the greens reasoned, the Clinton administration had promised  to veto any “sufficiency language riders” affecting Northwest forests. This was a key part of the notorious deal with Chlopak and Babbitt.

When the first version of the Rescissions Bill arrived at the White House, Clinton did veto it. Mainstream greens cheered the president in full-page ads in the New York Times. These accolades were over-loud and premature. In fact, concern for his own pet project, Americorps, which the bill would have gutted, was the real spark for Clinton’s veto.

Within days of the veto, the White House helped draft a new version of the bill which contained both the Americorps funding and the anti-environmental riders. The Clinton-approved version saild through the House, but could have been stopped in the Senate with an objection from a single senator.

Environmentalists had placed their hopes in Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, who had intimated that she might launch a filibuster against the bill. But when the time came Murray was nowhere to be found. It turned out that Clinton had called Murray the night before the scheduled vote and demanded that she drop her challenge. The compliant senator quietly fled town for a leisurely weekend in Seattle.

After the final vote, Mark Hatfield strode to the podium in the well of the Senate chamber, a sly grin on his face: “I would like to read this into the record. It is a letter denoting the Clinton administration’s total support for this bill.” In a final twist of the knife, the letter Hatfield brandished was signed by Clinton’s OMB director Alice Rivlin, a former adviser to the Wilderness Society.

At the signing ceremony, Clinton rationalized his latest betrayal: “Yes, I support this salvage provision. I believe we need to do more salvage logging.”

Nothing could better illustrate the shattered condition of the green lobby. When the most egregious assault yet on American environmental laws came before the Senate, not a single senator could be roused to oppose it. Not one.

A quarter century after the first Earth Day, the corporate counter-attacked launched in the 1970s was nearly complete. As citizens virtuously warehouse their newspapaers, seek redemption in glass bottles and aluminum cans and recycle their direct mail pleas from mainstream environmental groups into properly source-separated containers, they may be too busy acting locally to notice the thoroughly degraded national picture.

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.

Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

Click here to read Part Three.

Click here to read Part Four.

Click here to read Part Four.

Click here to read Part Five.

Click here to read Part Six.

Click here to read Part Seven.

Click here to read Part Eight.

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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