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Karen Coulter and the Power of Grassroots Activism

Grassroots biodiversity protection groups are the unsung heroes of the segment of the environmental movement devoted to defending wildlife and wild places. One excellent example is the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, which has just completed its 20th year of protecting the magnificent forests of eastern Oregon.

At the same time, the Fund for Wild Nature, which was created to help support bold grassroots activists such as the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, has begun celebrating its 30th anniversary. It is therefore particularly apt that the Fund for Wild Nature has selected Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project co-founder Karen Coulter to receive its Grassroots Activist of the Year Award for 2012.

Like many other founders of grassroots biodiversity groups, Karen Coulter’s activism can be traced back to direct action groups such as Earth First! and Greenpeace.

While Karen appreciated the role of direct action, she also recognized that there was a lot of untapped potential to vigorously enforce environmental laws through citizen litigation in cases that the dominant national environmental organizations avoided for being too politically controversial. But in order to win these lawsuits, she would need to know the forests better than the people who were trying to cut them down.

Therefore, Karen made the decision to live amid the forests of northeastern Oregon, an area that received relatively little attention from other environmental organizations. This was a courageous choice since she would be living in a remote rural area where she faced harassment and threats from people connected to the timber industry.

Despite these risks, she stuck with it and Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project has become a bold and effective force in defense of eastern Oregon forests.  For example, in one year, the group was able to stop over 10,000 acres of logging through two lawsuits.

One component to Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project’s success has been its growing network of volunteer interns who have helped monitor the forests, and in exchange received a hands-on education in ecology and activism. Karen has been particularly good at attracting a diverse set of volunteers, including members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, and younger and older folks ranging in age from 12 to over 60, coming from locations throughout United States as well as other countries.

Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project has provided a valuable training ground for the next generation of environmental activists, with many former volunteers (including a Fund for Wild Nature board member) taking the lessons they learned and applying them to new campaigns.

Karen has always maintained a strong awareness that the threats to the forests must be understood within the larger context of corporate power. She has helped build alliances between environmentalists and labor through the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. She has been a principal activist with the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy and its campaign on corporate charters. And she co-organized the End Corporate Dominance conferences in Portland that attracted 800-1000 participants per year. However, one consequence has been the loss of financial support to Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project from grantmaking foundations that don’t want to explicitly challenge corporations.  This situation has meant that Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project has had to get by on a remarkably small budget for all it has accomplished.

It is in this context that the support from the Fund for Wild Nature has been particularly important to enable Karen to continue doing her amazing work.

Thirty years ago, the Fund for Wild Nature was created by grassroots activists to help fund the boldest grassroots groups, knowing how difficult it can be for these groups to get assistance from other foundations, and also recognizing how even a small amount of funding for these groups can lead to big results.

Unlike other foundations, the Fund for Wild Nature depends entirely on donations from the public, which it then redistributes to support worthy grassroots biodiversity protection groups throughout North America.

In addition to providing grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as another way to promote bold activism. The Fund is honored to offer the award this year to Karen Coulter. As we approach Earth Day, whose message is all-too-often co-opted by corporate greenwashing and timid name-brand environmental organizations, Karen Coulter is an inspiring reminder of the courage and effectiveness of the grassroots.

Douglas Bevington is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009) and is a member of the all-volunteer board of directors of the Fund for Wild Nature.

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