Environmental Towers Build Too High to Keep Grass Roots

PRESIDENT Clinton just signed into law a moratorium on listing of endangered species. This is the first step toward the destruction of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Emboldened by this victory, corporate America has enlisted the support of the radical anti-environmentalist, Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, as lead sponsor of legislation to finish off the ESA.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, the question is, ''Who's minding the environmental store?'' Big ticket environmental groups aren't in charge, they're comatose! They are themselves responsible for the decline of the national environmental movement. If the ''Big 10'' environmental organizations don't wake up, their future and their ability to protect the environment will be extremely bleak.

Losing the Endangered Species Act would be disastrous. The ESA protects us. It safeguards many of the species upon which we rely for medicines. Endangered species also identify problems that could be threats to human existence, just like the canary in the coal mine. The ESA protects ecosystems like wetlands, which purify our drinking water, and forests, which filter our air. It protects our private property from corporations that benefit financially from the destruction of our natural heritage. And it helps to ensure our nation's long- term economic viability by contributing to the tourism, fishing, pharmaceutical, and agricultural industries.

I have firsthand knowledge of the problems with national environmental groups. I spent 18 exhilarating but frustrating months as campaign director of the national coalition to reauthorize the expired Endangered Species Act. The coalition included 145 organizations but was governed by a self-selected steering committee representing 10 of the largest environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and The Environmental Defense Fund.

I came to the environmental movement as an outsider with a commitment to preserving our natural heritage for my newborn son. Previously I was the executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League affiliate in Maryland, where we made political history by becoming the third state in the nation to codify the principles of Roe v. Wade.

Once inside, I was shocked to find that, however earnest and well meaning, America's flagship environmental groups had calcified into top-heavy bureaucracies where self-perpetuation had replaced environmental protection as the primary goal. The organizations were out of touch with both the public and grass-roots activists, engaged in destructive competition for media coverage and funding, and resistant to progress.

The Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) steering committee resisted the most basic elements of political organizing, including the development of a simple, compelling message. Despite finally crafting a message that was enthusiastically received by the media and grass-roots organizers, many steering committee members refused to use the message, preferring instead to talk in legal abstractions about the ESA.

Many national environmental leaders are stereotypical ''ivory tower elitists.'' They seemed to feel that speaking in abstruse language conferred upon them a superior status, and they refused to make a case ordinary Americans could rally around. Moreover, each group believed it needed its own message and activities to distinguish itself from other groups, supposedly competitors.

During my tenure, the national environmental groups gave no more than lip service to grass-roots involvement in the reauthorization campaign. Unlike the opposition, they failed to understand the simple reality that legislators respond to pressure endlessly applied through constituent meetings, letters, and phone calls.

National leaders turned a deaf ear to grass-roots activists themselves. I was fired from my job for communicating my thoughts about the timing of reauthorization with 30 grass-roots groups, asking them to share their thoughts with the national environmental leaders. A senior vice president at the National Audubon Society said, ''How dare you lobby me. I don't need to hear from the grass roots, I know what the grass roots thinks.''

Continuous delay motivated by fear results from the inability to understand and appreciate the power of grass-roots pressure. I urged the steering committee to reauthorize the ESA in 1994, when we had a Democratic Congress and president. I explained that ''historically, the party controlling the White House has lost congressional seats in every midterm but 1934 and our job could range from slightly more difficult to nearly impossible in 1995 with Republican control of Congress.''

In the face of impending disaster, the steering committee held fast to its policy of ''do nothing'' and ''delay,'' probably at the expense of the Endangered Species Act, the crown jewel of our nation's environmental laws.

National groups have forgotten that grass-roots political organizing can change the so-called ''political reality,'' so they often buckled to a false reality created by opponents, without attempting to influence it in any way. I found out only by accident that a steering committee co-chair was meeting with leaders of industry to discuss compromise before we had the chance to bring grass-roots pressure to bear on Congress to strengthen the ESA, which was our publicly stated goal.

The kind of world my son inherits may well depend on the ability of national environmental organizations to recognize their problems and radically reconstruct themselves. If they don't, it will be done for them, quite likely at the expense of our natural heritage.

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