Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Hounding the Opposition

Club Bird-Dogs Flush Out Eco-Frauds

by Marie Dolcini

Once again, cloaks are fashionable this fall -- the kind that keep anti-environmental voting records from public view, that is. This year's congressional line is proving especially popular among polluters' allies running for re- election. Not only do these electoral necessities sport deep pockets to accommodate corporate polluter contributions, they're now available in several market- tested shades of green.

But Sierra Club activists aren't buying the trend. In fact, they've made a name for themselves exposing these greenscammers' true colors and setting the records straight. Known as "bird-doggers" for hounding the opposition and flushing out the truth, they're hitting the campaign trail and homing in on the 104th Congress' most notorious eco-frauds.

In Virginia, Chapter lobbyist Albert Pollard got an assist in making the environment an issue this fall from an unexpected source: Gov. George Allen (R). When the governor tried to hide his abysmal environmental record behind a river cleanup press event in July, Pollard stole his headlines. "Instead of picking up beer bottles," said Pollard in a radio interview, "maybe the governor could tell us why he wants to eliminate a standard for deadly toxics."

Allen has unwittingly kept the story alive by trying in vain to defend himself. Point by point, Pollard has refuted the governor's responses and has offered concrete examples of what Allen could do if he were serious about cleaning up the environment.

Pollard's just one of many Club bird-doggers rooting out green impostors and spoiling not just photo ops, but plans for re-election. Some cut their teeth back in January by asking pointed questions before TV cameras to bring the environmental positions of Republican presidential hopefuls before the public. Others have been credited by Executive Director Carl Pope with "out-organizing, outtestifying and out-press-releasing the industry-friendly witnesses" at dozens of stacked congressional field hearings aimed at repealing environmental safeguards.

But the sheer number of anti-environmental candidates presents many more bird-dogging opportunities this fall. Rep. Andrea Seastrand (R-Calif.) remains a popular target for her consistent votes to cut the Environmental Protection Agency budget and block enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Interestingly, her zero percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters in 1995 didn't prevent her from being appointed to the steering committee of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Environmental Task Force." When Seastrand returned home to Santa Barbara to hold an April 1 press conference announcing its first meeting -- without informing local environmentalists -- the Santa Barbara Group got wind of the ruse and made sure to attend.

Initially, Seastrand accepted questions only from those in her own entourage, but Group Chair Frank Fetscher insisted on being heard. "When I was finally recognized, I told her that I thought her appointment to an environmental task force was the funniest April Fool's Day story I'd heard in years, and that I felt that those of us in the environmental community should have been invited," said Fetscher. "She blustered and blurted to the effect that this was no joke, and my comment was quoted in the morning paper." Seastrand has yet to invite Fetscher -- or any other Club volunteers -- to future conferences. In the meantime, local press coverage of her environmental record has been overwhelmingly critical. Back East, Rep. Peter Blute (R) has earned his share of bird-doggers' heat by claiming the Sierra Club had rated him as a "moderate" member of Congress. Massachusetts Chapter Political Chair John Andrews took aim at the congressman's blatant environmental opportunism and 38 percent LCV record for 1995 in a Worcester magazine spring op-ed by reviewing the congressman's attempts to weaken the Clean Water Act.

By the time the House speaker arrived in Boston for a summer Republican fundraiser, the ripples created by Andrews and others had turned to waves. Local bird-doggers came out in force to protest Gingrich's support of Blute with a spirited piece of street theater. "Although we only had short notice that he was coming, we decided we had to do something different," said volunteer Gretchen Fryling. "One of us dressed up as Newt and acted as a puppeteer, while another stood in as Blute, his favorite puppet in Congress. The press rushed in to see us and we got full coverage on the nightly news." Responses to environmental bird-dogging have ranged from obvious embarrassment and weak protestations, as in Seastrand's case, to name- calling, as resorted to by one Blute spokesperson who called Club volunteers "left-wing wackos from Washington."

In Nevada, Associate Regional Representative Jennifer Witherspoon reported a more unusual sign of success. Every time Rep. John Ensign (R) appears on Las Vegas radio, bird-doggers set to the phones and question his bad environmental votes and 15 percent LCV score over the air. It's been so effective that even the governor has called Ensign to complain. "Thanks to us, Ensign's spending most of his time trying to defend his record," said Witherspoon.

Club leaders now plan to expand bird-dogging efforts throughout the fall by running voter education efforts in up to 50 congressional districts that compare candidates' environmental records. Birddoggers would then drive those records home in local papers and at public appearances. "An educated public will make the right decisions about who to trust with our environment," said Club Legislative Director Debbie Sease.

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