ASHLAND, ORE. — ASK Americans if they favor environmental protection, and the vast majority answer, ``Of course!'' Poll after poll in recent years confirms this.
Why then are national environmental organizations losing members and contributions, and going through retrenchment and soul-searching? Why have their adversaries in the ``wise-use'' movement gained in stature and influence? And why, as a result, have ``enviros'' lost clout in Washington, where the 103rd Congress either rejected or failed to act on just about all of the environmental agenda?
``These are tough times for the environmental movement,'' says Velma Smith, executive director of Friends of the Earth.
``We have been on the defensive, no doubt about it,'' adds Brent Blackwelder, recently named president of the group.
The Sierra Club recently announced that because of ``demographic, political, communications, and financial realities,'' it would have to cut its 1995 spending nearly $4 million (about 10 percent) below current levels and ``flatten the organization's hierarchy and structure.''
The Wilderness Society has been forced to close some regional offices because of declines in membership and contributions. Greenpeace, the National Audubon Society, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have lost members as well.
Some cite the economy as a primary reason for decline in support. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, notes that charitable giving is down across the board in the United States. Part of the problem is that more people are questioning the scientific basis of sky-is-falling warnings on issues like global warming. `Wise-Use' Groups Gather Force
Other critics are effectively highlighting the impact of environmental regulations on private-property owners or on people who work in natural-resource industries, particularly in the West.
In addition, say some environmental group insiders and their friends in Congress, movement leaders have become distant from their own grass roots and tend to respond to the real-people stories coming from the other side with know-it-all scientists and lawyers.
``They're into their marketing and they're into their direct mail, but they have totally lost touch and offended the grass-roots groups,'' says one source who works closely with the leaders of national environmental groups.
A Democratic source on Capitol Hill working full time on natural-resource issues says: ``They've become too corporate and too `Washington.' They've concentrated on building their lists and having their lobbyists and having their buildings and being insiders.''
``They've been out-organized on the ground,'' adds this source, the result of which is ``they don't get listened to.''
At the same time, the wise-use movement is gaining attention in Washington as well as at the state level.
First organized about six years ago, this is a loose confederation of ranchers, miners, loggers, farmers, property owners, outdoor recreationalists, anti-big-government conservatives, and others.
Environmental activists call it a front for business and industry (which does provide some financial backing), but there is a strong grass-roots element as well. In recent years wise-use leaders have been able to generate an outpouring of letters, phone calls, and faxes to fight what they deridingly call ``preservationists'' over environmental-protection issues.
Says one environmental activist, with a tone of respect: ``The other side has got a goal, they're going after it, they stick to their message.... They're amazing.'' Leaders of major environmental groups feel so threatened that in July the leaders of 15 national groups sent ``an urgent appeal for citizen action'' to their combined membership.
One of the strongest points of contention has been over the ``taking'' of private property through regulations that restrict use of wetlands or habitats of endangered species.
``Whether it's the gun in their pickup or their house or the land on which their house sits, people are very, very protective of their property,'' says William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest law firm in Denver.
It's an issue of increasing concern in Congress, where 165 House members cosponsored a Private Property Owners Bill of Rights and more than 100 formed a Property Rights Caucus. This is at least partly in response to pressure from the League of Private Property Voters, an umbrella group of 280 wise-use organizations that tracks congressional votes and prominently posts annual lists of ``champions'' and ``enemies.''
While no federal property-rights legislation has been passed (and only mild measures have been approved in about eight states), the issue has been effectively used to modify or squelch environmental legislation. This includes the attempt to elevate the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet status and also the Clinton administration's plan to establish a ``National Biological Survey.''
Despite their recent troubles, national environmental organizations remain ahead of their political adversaries in terms of budget, membership, and organization.
``They've got more money and they've got more skill,'' says Chuck Cushman, who heads several wise-use groups based in Battle Ground, Wash. ``But I think we're gaining on them.''