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The Measure of the Environmental Movement's Success

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Ten years ago, Tom Knudson galvanized the West by revealing what had become of California's Sierra Nevada -- the mountains that inspired the formation of the Sierra Club and that John Muir called the Range of Light.

Knudson's 1991 series in the Sacramento Bee revealed that the Sierra was under siege from five horsemen of a coming apocalypse: logging, grazing and fire suppression, as well as suburban sprawl and air pollution in the mighty range's western foothills.

His articles, which won a Pulitzer Prize, inspired a public outcry, legislative hearings, a massive scientific study, and finally, early this year, an about-face in how the United States Forest Service manages its 18,000 square miles of the range.

Now, 10 years later, Tom Knudson has launched another series in the Bee, headlined "Environment, Inc." This time he attacks the West's and the nation's environmental movement as overpaid, overzealous, reckless in its desire to sue and "chaotic and shrill."

If this were almost any other journalist, we could blow off the series. But this is Tom Knudson, and we should pay attention to what turned him from a journalist who has spent two decades muckraking environmentalism's enemies to one who is muckraking environmentalism.

Judging by the emotional content of the series, he was most offended by environmentalism's end-of-the-world, doomsday rhetoric in millions of pieces of direct ("junk") mail. Direct mail is the public face of environmentalism, and that face, he indicated, is often covered with angry red blotches. The letters are hysterical, overstated and, at times, flat-out wrong.

But Knudson was not all negative. He closes his series with a celebration of grassroots groups, conservation-minded ranchers, and those, like The Nature Conservancy, who buy land to save it. He wants a pure, close-to-the-earth environmental movement that protects the land, works cooperatively with rural people, and is calm and scientific rather than hysterical in tone and focused on raising big bucks.

Who doesn't? But that time is past. Environmentalism in the West is no longer a puny movement struggling to get the attention of the American public. For eight years, we sat at the right hand of power in the Clinton administration, working a revolution. We created national monuments, we put 80,000 square miles of roadless national forest off limits to roading, we created regulations to reform hard-rock mining, we ended dam building and began to talk of pulling dams down.

We had that power because the American people have bought into environmentalism and Clinton knew it. In a brief few decades, everything in the West has changed except one thing: We in the environmental movement still see ourselves as a beleaguered minority fighting against all odds to change the American West.

Now comes George W. Bush, with his frontal attack on the roadless initiative, with a plan to build a power plant a week, and a determination to drill in the Arctic and the new national monuments. In response, we push panic buttons and act as if he, rather than us, has the nation and major global trends on his side.

We have forgotten that this president's father ended underground nuclear testing, vetoed an enormous dam outside Denver, and signed a law to reform the use of irrigation water in California' Central Valley. Like Clinton, he advanced an environmental agenda because he knew the will of the American people.

To take advantage of our strengths, we have to act like leaders with broad responsibilities, rather than a narrowly focused special interest. We have to fight not just to protect the Arctic and the national monuments and the Rocky Mountain Front, but to help deal with society's energy problems. Old plants must be shut down. New plants and new transmission lines must be built. Efficiency and conservation must be strongly encouraged.

In these coming four years, as in the last eight, the major national groups must sit at the table with the other leaders of the nation. And the environmentalists must be led by relatively well-paid leaders backed by professional staffs. The national groups must even behave in corporate ways: They must be well-organized, have adequate resources and a sensible, inclusive strategy.

It is where success has led us.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is the publisher of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado.

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