INTERVIEW. Sierra Club adopts global perspective

The Sierra Club is becoming more global in its approach to environmental protection, according to the group's president, Lawrence Downing. In an interview, Mr. Downing laid out the organization's top legislative goals: passing clean-air legislation, preventing oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and supporting a desert wilderness bill. He also discussed the club's national and global role, and the need to examine carefully the environmental impact of United States aid overseas.

Downing, a thoughtful, mustachioed divorce lawyer from Oronoco, Minn., spends most of his weekends shuttling among the more than 50 Sierra Club chapter offices, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where the club has been headquartered since its founding 95 years ago.

Downing's work is purely voluntary: He is spokesman, goodwill ambassador, or radio talk-show guest as the situation demands. In addition to a president - a rotating and unpaid position - the Sierra Club has a salaried national chairman who oversees the group's activities.

Downing deflects a question on whether he ``crusades'' for the environment. ``I certainly don't think of myself as a crusader. A crusader is one who, in the face of all odds, nevertheless continues his or her viewpoint. To me, when you're articulating the will of the vast majority in this country, then I don't think of that as being a crusader.''

Downing is critical of the Reagan White House, especially regarding oil exploration in the Arctic refuge.

``We think the administration is speaking out of both sides of their mouth. On one hand, [they say,] `Sure, let's have a 65 mile-an-hour speed limit,' and on the other hand, `We've got an energy crisis; we've got to conserve so we need more gas and oil.' They've cut out all the alternate-energy funds, there's no solar program anymore. ... Now the administration would not have us think conservation because they want to help out the oil and gas industry.''

Of Congress, Downing says, ``We think on the [Arctic wildlife refuge] bill we can sense the mood has shifted, we sense a growing impetus for us. But it's not a time to be overconfident.''

Downing expects the 1988 presidential candidates to take a much stronger position on environmental issues going into the election. And he is convinced that the new administration in 1989 - Democratic or Republican - will be more receptive to conservation groups than the Reagan administration has been.

He explains the frustration of the past 6 years: ``We felt we would always be in a defensive posture with the Reagan administration. It's only the fact that they've been so outrageous that's kept them from having credibility and has enabled us to keep moving forward in a positive way. It actually turned out - in one sense - good for us'' in that more people joined the organization or sent money.

Now the group has a new challenge: advocating international global conservation. The Sierra Club moved its international department from the United Nations in New York to Washington, D.C., because, as Downing says, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have all the money and are making all the relevant decisions.

He acknowledges the difficulties in persuading developing nations to take environmental problems seriously. ``For third-world countries, it's tough to talk parks when people are starving to death, but you can make loans that help the environment and help the hunger problem.''

The Sierra Club's leaders have also spent much of the past year developing an inventory of world wilderness areas through satellite data analysis. ``We don't know what the findings are yet, but governments are starting to inquire about it.''

Downing gives a nod to the concept of debt swapping, whereby nations with large foreign debts and prime wilderness lands are relieved of a portion of debt in return for pledges to protect the wilderness. For example, a private enterprise called Conservation International agreed to buy $650,000 of Bolivia's debt in exchange for that country's promise to preserve 3.7 million acres of Amazon rain forest.

He also described the Sierra Club's commitment to helping environmental groups around the world lobby their own governments. He cited the example of the Wild Bird Society of Japan, which is trying to prevent the construction of a US military airstrip within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park in Japan. The park is a valuable bird sanctuary.

``There are a number of environmental organizations around the world - they're rather small and generally wildlife oriented - but those people hunger to know how it is that you actually can have an impact on your government. We don't have all the answers. And obviously, lobbying a monarchy is not the same as lobbying Congress,'' Downing says with a smile. ``But there are ways to network people.''

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