Boston — As never before, environmental groups are readying their grass-roots support for a direct role in the election process. Instead of donating money, groups are providing favored candidates with their own abundant resource: volunteers.
Although the real push will be in the 1982 congressional elections, environmental groups already have banded together in some local 1981 campaigns. This new political activity has been spurred by the controversial policies of Interior Secretary James G. Watt, who many environmentalists believe is opposed to essential environmental protection.
"After last year's election, we realized we couldn't sit back and give money to candidates," says Matthew MAcWilliams, campaign coordinator of Environmental Action. "We had to get in there and organize."
So, in New Jersey, four national environmental organizations have joined forces with the New Jersey Environmental Voters Alliance to support four local candidates this fall -- one for governor and three for state senator. The collective force already has won all four of the primary races it targeted, and it is pushing against heavier odds in the general election this fall.
"For $15,000 in a state, we can do a lot more in terms of organizing than we can if we give it to a single candidate," Mr. MacWilliams says. "When we look at our membership, so many of them are activists. We look on them as precinct captains. And those volunteers just become real, real valuable [to the candidate]."
But the New Jersey effort is only the beginning of a much broader campaign fight in the 1982 congressional elections.
"We've looked at New Jersey as a training ground," explains MacWilliams. The environmental groups are not only testing their clout, they are getting needed practice in organizing, polling, and computer targeting -- skills which will be vital if they hope to get out the "green" vote in 1982.
MacWilliams says that the national groups involved in New Jersey -- Environmental Action, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Solar Lobby -- will key their efforts, sometimes collectively, to congressional races in eight to 12 states. Races in Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, California, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Maryland, and Virginia are being watched closely.
The Sierra Club also is getting into the act. For the first time, it is endorsing candidates and urging its more than 225,000 members to volunteer as campaign workers in local races.
"I don't have to push too hard," says Sierra Club president Joe Fontaine. "We've always had active people who were involved in campaigns. But we've never done it in an organized way as the Sierra Club."
The club also hopes to influence the 1982 elections through its petition asking Congress to replace Interior Secretary Watt.
"We want to show that Watt can be a political liability in 1982," Mr. Fontaine says. One million signatures opposing Watt and his policies, he says, will force 1982 congressional candidates to take notice of public support for the environment. The petition already has 900,000 signatures.
Despite Secretary Watt's proposals to lower air-quality standards, open up federal lands to mineral exploitation, and give offshore drilling leases to oil companies, Fontaine is upbeat about the future. He cites several recent polls and an unprecedented growth in Sierra Club membership as evidence of broad public support for protection of the environment.
"It's been a tremendously exciting time," he says. "People like Secretary Watt are doing us a service in alerting people to the threats that are out there.
"We're going to take some licks. But the real battle is for people's minds.