Guess who's coming to protest?

A growing number of unlikely environmentalists are taking action where it matters most: at home.

A decade ago, Karl Rappold, whose family was ranching in Montana before it was a state, would sooner spit than call himself an environmentalist.

Today he's still not about to join any greenie groups - but with gas drilling threatening to foul the crystalline waters that gush from the Rockies onto his spread, he is arm-in-arm with a coalition of ranchers and environmental groups that aim to stop the drilling.

Whether he likes it or not, Mr. Rappold is part of the new face of the American environmental movement - millions of Americans who may not call themselves environmentalists or belong to big-name green groups, but who might just sport a "What Would Jesus Drive?" bumper sticker or battle a local toxic-waste dump.

This diversification may explain a long-standing mystery: For more than a decade, polls have shown at least two-thirds of Americans consider themselves environmentalists, but membership in big mainstream environment groups has stayed flat since the early 1990s. For some organizations, like Greenpeace, it has plummeted.

But under the radar, newcomers are taking up the cause where it matters most to them: at home. Their activism has spawned a bevy of smaller, local-issue green groups whose growth is surging, according to a new analysis of Internal Revenue Service data.

For example, the number of environmental organizations with more than $1 million in annual income fell by nearly half - from 280 to 151 - during the period from 1995 to 2003, the IRS says.

Meanwhile, 4,247 smaller environmental groups (up to $1 million in income) were created - a 51 percent increase.

"What we've seen is the growth in the environmental movement shifting away from large-scale national groups," says Robert Brulle, a Drexel University sociologist who tracks environmental groups through IRS data. "In the 1980s, the sentiment grew that Washington environmental groups had been co-opted and become ineffectual. The fruit of that, today, is the growth we've seen among all these local and regional environment groups."

The fast-growing environmental justice movement that began in the 1980s, was joined in the 1990s by the relatively new 'ecoreligious' and 'ecohealth' groups, Brulle notes. These groups and those affiliated with them span demographic and racial differences and often eschew traditional labels.

Just ask Margaret Williams, who in the late 1980s realized that a toxic landfill 150 feet outside her back door, which she later dubbed "Mt. Dioxin," threatened the health of neighborhood residents.

So the retired teacher and now octogenarian great-grandmother launched a decade-long battle to get the government to evacuate hundreds of families from Pensacola, Fla. This year, the last family is finally set to move out, although the government says it doesn't have the money to move Mt. Dioxin itself.

"No, I'm not a member of any environmental group," she says. "I'm just Margaret Williams working to help people. I am concerned about our people having a clean environment to live in - and that includes air, water, and soil. I think all people are entitled to a healthy environment."

Humanitarian drive

The environmental justice movement is growing swiftly. It's already increased from 300 groups in 1992 to more than 1,000 in 2000, estimates Robert Bullard, who directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

It includes nonminorities like Erin Taylor, a student at Emerson College in Boston, who resists being labeled as an environmentalist but lists environmental health, energy, recycling, and water among her causes.

"I don't like to call myself an environmentalist," she says. "I feel like the word environmentalist has been 'villainized.' I guess I really am an environmentalist, but I feel more like a humanitarian, a life- itarian."

Ms. Taylor and a handful of activists on campus are passing around petitions, raising awareness to turn lights off in the dorms, and meeting with school administrators on a plan to purchase 20 percent of campus power from "clean" sources.

But a key motivator for her is to reduce air pollution in urban communities, where power plants are often sited.

"We've got to help these people," she says of city neighborhoods where the rates of breathing-related illness are rising due to poor air quality.

This shift in focus from national to local health and justice issues marks a big change since the national green movement peaked in 1990 with the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, says Riley Dunlap, a political scientist who has charted public opinion about the environmental movement.

Americans felt the Clinton administration was sympathetic to environmental concerns and, ironically, they may have felt less pressure to join big environmental groups. The share of Americans who said they belonged to an environmental group remained steady at about 8 percent between 1994 and 2000, according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Then terrorism arrived. "Environment has really declined since 9/11 as an issue for Americans," Mr. Dunlap says. "It's not that they've become antienvironment or want regulations weakened, but they're not thinking about environment."

Yet this may not hold at the local or regional level, where environmental issues may be gaining momentum, he says. Even big environmental groups say they are gaining ground now - including using new means to reach constituents who would not have joined them before.

For example, the use of the Internet as a tool to reach new faces combined with the Bush administration's "rapacious approach" toward the environment, are stirring the masses, says Tom McGuire, vice president of membership programs at the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va.

While traditional NWF membership maintained by direct mail has remained flat for a decade at about 1 million, the NWF has added about 700,000 "virtual members" in the past three years alone.

"We're doing more work online and bringing in a younger demographic," he says of virtual connections like the "backyard wildlife" section of the NWF website that allows anyone to chart rare wildlife in their yard.

His group is also drawing new alliances with the "hook and bullet groups," he says, referring to anglers and hunters who think Bush's forest policy "has an impact on stream quality and other ecosystems they care about."

One of the stealthiest segments of the environmental movement declines to even be called part of the movement - the fast-growing ecospiritual or ecoreligious movements within religious groups.

During the 1970s and '80s, there were only pockets of people in the religious community who saw pollution and other issues as connected to humankind and God, says Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) in Amherst, Mass.

That changed in the 1990s.

Preaching on Earth Day

Formed in 1993, the NRPE is a coalition of the US Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

"Environmentalism didn't begin with Earth Day, it began with Genesis," Mr. Gorman says."God saw all that he had created and it was good. It begins with human stewardship."

This week 120,000 congregations will receive materials about clean air and other issues geared to Earth Day - such as helping ministers pick hymns that have themes about caring for God's creation.

The national "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign launched in November 2002 by the Evangelical Environmental Network is probably the most visible effort so far.

Its success has led to "What should the governor drive?" - an interfaith effort to focus attention on government's choices for its auto and bus fleets.

The WWJD campaign has been aimed mainly at getting Christians to think and talk about their transportation choices - to make sure "this decision is a moral one," says the Rev. Jim Ball, the evangelical minister who conceived it. The environment is important, but religion is always at the forefront, he says.

"We are a very different voice from environmentalists," he says. "We're looking at how global warming and pollution coming out our tailpipes is hurting neighbors, children, and the poor. We are not the Nature Conservancy at prayer."

This is the sort of thing that makes perfect sense to many people, like Mr. Rappold, the Montana rancher, who sees a carefully nuanced distinction from himself and environmental groups.

"I work with environmental groups, but I don't belong to them," he says. "I can do more as an independent rancher. Besides, my view is that whether you're an environmentalist or rancher, everybody has to pull together to save the Front [range]. That's the only way we're going to save it."

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