ASHLAND, ORE. — NOT a day goes by in the United States when grass-roots activists somewhere aren't lobbying on behalf of the environment. They may not think of themselves as philosophically or politically "green," and they may not even be particularly comfortable with the label "environmentalist." On a "jobs-versus-spotted -owl" scale, some may be more inclined to line up with loggers and millworkers than a feathery critter.
But when it comes to protecting their local environment, they are fiercely determined and ready to fight. And they number in the many thousands.
Some recent examples: In Fairborn, Ohio, 75 people picketed the Southwestern Portland Cement Company to protest the burning of toxic chemicals in a cement kiln. (Thirteen were arrested.) Also in Ohio, 19 protesters were arrested as part of a demonstration outside a new hazardous- waste incinerator along the Ohio River in East Liverpool. "I got involved because I have a 10-year-old daughter," Terri Swearingen of the Tri-State Environmental Council was quoted as saying of the Liverpool protest.
Elsewhere, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in California has launched a "Campaign to End the Miscarriage of Justice," to publicize the health hazards to women of reproductive age who work in computer-chip manufacturing plants. Members of the Citizens Action Committee were among more than 200 demonstrators who gathered in Charlotte, Mich., last month to protest a proposed power plant.
Much of this local activism centers on toxic waste - both its production and its disposal. There are two major umbrella groups working on this issue. The Boston-based National Toxics Campaign Fund claims 75,000 members and 1,300 community groups. Over the past 10 years, the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, based in Falls Church, Va., has worked with more than 7,000 local grass-roots groups. The clearinghouse helps organize such groups, trains local members, and provides technical help on suc h questions as risk assessment at waste sites. The group is headed by Lois Marie Gibbs, the woman who first organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association.
Critics have characterized such protests as "NIMBYism" (for "Not In My Back Yard"). But others say it makes sense to be concerned about health and safety issues in one's own neighborhood.
"It's an absolutely logical reaction," says Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Representative Miller makes two other observations about the environmental movement today: "A good portion of the energy has shifted locally"; and, like the women's movement, "It's now everywhere."
Local environmentalists are linking up electronically. "Econet," part of the San Francisco-based Institute for Global Communications, now has more than 3,200 subscribers to its bulletin board and is adding a 100 a month. Subscribers to another computer database called "Greenwire" can read or download a comprehensive survey of national and international environmental news every weekday.
More so than at the national level, local environmental groups are likely to be headed by women - particularly groups dealing with poisonous wastes.
This movement has been successful in publicizing if not halting the threat of toxic waste in many places, and it also has aided in the passage of "right-to-know" legislation giving communities fuller information about the sources of such waste.
Lawmakers in Washington often rely on local environmentalists to provide the information they need to craft legislation designed to prevent pollution, or to protect natural resources.
While national environmental organizations usually are in accord with the strategy and tactics of local groups, this isn't always the case. Last year, for example, the Missoula, Mont., Alliance for the Wild Rockies wanted a much more protective Montana wilderness bill than was acceptable to some national organizations more willing to compromise. By the end of the 102nd Congress, no bill had passed.
Another point of conflict has been the perception by minority communities (urban and rural) that the mainline environmental organizations have been slow to recognize their problems with polluting industries and waste dumps. Some 2,500 civil rights, environmental, and union activists recently met at Xavier University in New Orleans to discuss "environmental justice." National environmental leaders acknowledge their need to pay more attention. They have been speaking out, joining lawsuits, and in some case s providing direct financial support to local groups in largely minority communities.
The growth in grass-roots environmentalism in the United States parallels and is part of the rise of nongovernment organizations worldwide. They turned out by the thousands at last summer's Earth Summit in Brazil.
Today, says former Rep. Jim Jontz of Indiana, who was one of the most active pro-environment members of Congress, "There are millions of citizen conservationists around the country."