Why the Sierra Club went political

In 1982 America's conservation movement is fully engaged in the electoral process. All of the national conservation groups whose tax status permits have organized political action committees (PACs). In addition, independent environmental PACs are at work in many states mobilizing conservationists and sportsmen for electoral involvement.

In these final days before the election, tens of thousands of Sierra Club members are working in election campaigns across the country - walking precincts , operating phonebanks, stuffing envelopes - on behalf of hundreds of environmentally inclined candidates for Congress, for state legislatures, and for local offices.

The Sierra Club, the largest of the environmental groups with a PAC, will put nearly a quarter of a million dollars into campaign activity this year. The volunteer activity of our members will be even more significant.

Why all of this electoral activity from the conservation movement? It is clearly in response to the Reagan administration's strongly anti-environmental positions.

For a generation now, preserving environmental quality and protecting America's natural resources have been significant on our nation's political agenda. Overwhelming public support shown consistently in polls for more than a decade has led to great progress. Basic laws have been enacted to set the ground rules for pollution clean-up, and such institutions as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state-level equivalents have been organized to implement those laws. Congress has established systems to protect wilderness areas, endangered species, wild and scenic rivers and our treasured national parks. Important programs to encourage energy conservation and the transition to solar and other renewable energy sources have begun.

But suddenly, all of this has been challenged as the Reagan administration has moved to slow these programs and, in many cases, to turn them backward.

Predictably enough, the public outcry has been great. As a result, the principal executioners of the Reagan anti-environmental program, Interior Secretary James Watt and EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch, are caught up in a swirl of public controversy.

Yet public protest alone will not dissuade the Reagan team from their pre-programmed assault.

Indeed, we must brace ourselves to resist a whole new wave of anti-environment actions they plan just as soon as the election is past. As Secretary Watt has said: ''If you think you've seen a lot of change so far you haven't seen anything yet.''

Faced by this challenge, the Sierra Club and other conservationists have mobilized to blunt the Reagan attack, using every tool and resource at our command. Public protest - exemplified by the 1,100,000 petition signatures gathered in just six months urging Watt's replacement - carried a clear message. Congress has repeatedly overturned Gorsuch plans to weaken such key laws as the Clean Air Act, and has flatly overruled Watt schemes, most recently in the six-to-one bipartisan House vote repulsing Watt's push to open our wilderness areas to oil, gas, and mineral development.

But not every anti-environmental action of the Reagan team can be effectively blocked on Capitol Hill; there is much damage they are doing to unravel administrative machinery and to destroy morale in EPA and other agencies. After 22 months of experience, we can expect them to doggedly stick to their course - unless and until they clearly see that their anti-environment crusade exposes them to unacceptable political damage.

The challenge to conservationists is to move into greater electoral involvement without jeopardizing the crucial bipartisan support for environmental protection traditional in American politics. Most of the early opposition to Watt- and Gorsuch-style policies came, understandably, from Democrats. But increasingly Republicans are challenging the Reagan assault.

Reagan candidates across the country are putting a distance between themselves and Watt's thoroughly unpopular policies. It is with enthusiasm that the Sierra Club has endorsed and is working hard to help elect such Republican conservationists as Sen. Robert Stafford of Vermont, Rep. Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island, and Sen. William Roth and Rep. Thomas Evans, both of Delaware. Each has been an outstanding leader on conservation matters in the Congress, along with such Democrats as Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, Reps. Phillip Burton and Henry Waxman of California, Rep. James Florio of New Jersey, and Rep. Toby Moffett, now running for the Senate from Connecticut.

The so-called ''Green Vote'' will be a real force in the 1982 elections.

The work of tens of thousands of volunteers across this country in the past have led to great conservation achievements - saving the redwoods, the wild lands of Alaska, defeating dams in the Grand Canyon, and many equally outrageous pork barrel projects.

Members of Congress have good reason to respect the effectiveness of America's conservation groups and their 5 million active members. They know, too , that such groups as the Sierra Club represent sentiment broadly shared by most Americans. We are now turning this capability toward electoral campaigns.

With the power of the ballot, conservationists will stop Reagan's assault on the American environment - if not in 1982, then in 1984.

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