by John Byrne Barry
Two years ago, shortly after Newt Gingrich and his accomplices kicked
off the 104th Congress with a package of anti-environmental bills, New
York Times reporter Jack Cushman telephoned Sierra Club Executive
Director Carl Pope and asked him, "What are you guys going to do about
the blitzkrieg that is about to hit you?"
Pope's response, which he says he only halfway believed at the time,
was, "It's not a blitzkrieg. It's the invasion of Russia. Wait until
One winter later, Cushman wrote a story in the Times headlined, "GOP
Backing Off From Tough Stand on Environment." The retreat had begun. By
October 1996, the 104th Congress had adjourned, and, with the notable
exception of the salvage logging rider
(see story, page 3),
there were few casualties to the environment.
But it wasn't tenacious Russian soldiers or frigid winter temperatures
that stopped the War on the Environment. It was the Sierra Club's
massive public outreach and education campaigns that mobilized the
American people in support of environmental protection.
It was Marcia Anderson, Jonathan Poisner, Bob Frenkel, Charlie Ogle,
Sandy Bahr, Bob Palzer and other volunteers in Oregon who turned the
January 1996 special election in their state into a referendum on the
environment and sent Rep. Ron Wyden (D) to the Senate. The Los Angeles
Times headline said it all: "Oregon's New Senator Credits Environmental
Vote for Victory."
In Houston, it was Marge Hanselman, Drusha Mayhew, Annette Jones and
Larry Freilich organizing 35 groups and more than 340 demonstrators to
protest Gingrich's appearance at a February fundraiser for Rep. Tom
DeLay (R), the House majority whip. "Pessimists said it couldn't be
done in conservative Houston," said Hanselman. "But after all, we all
drink the same water and breathe the same air."
In North Carolina, it was Sarah Wilson and Kellie Walker of the Sierra
Student Coalition papering 20 campuses with posters comparing the
voting records of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) and his challenger Harvey Gantt.
(Helms prevailed, alas, but in the other three SSC priority races, the
Club-supported candidate won.)
It was hundreds of wilderness advocates from coast to coast -- including
Jim Catlin, Vicky Hoover and Rudy Lukez -- who generated a ground-swell
of support for Utah wilderness. When President Clinton made his Sept.
18 announcement of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in
southern Utah, the Club's Southwest regional representative, Lawson
Legate, said, "The national monument designation was entirely the
administration's idea, but our activists and allies laid the
And seemingly everywhere was tireless Club President Adam Werbach
rallying the troops. In one three-week
period in early fall, he was in Carlotta, Calif., to demonstrate
support for protecting Headwaters Forest; at the Grand Canyon to join
Clinton for the announcement of the new Utah national monument; at
Harvard, Yale and the University of Vermont with SSC members to
register young voters; in New York City to lunch with Rolling Stone
publisher Jann Wenner; and in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., with
Vice President Al Gore to announce the Club's endorsement of Bill
Mostly it was an engaged and outraged American public that sent the
message, loud and clear, that environmental protection is a priority --
and backed that message up with letters, telephone calls and votes.
Over and over again -- on doorhangers, voter guides, boat flags, yard
signs, bumper stickers and billboards -- the Sierra Club repeated the
same message: "Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our
"By the fall, we were sick of that phrase," said National Field
Director Bob Bingaman, "but that was the idea. Repeat it until we're
all sick of it. By then the people we're trying to reach will start to
get it." They got it.
On Election Day 1996, 70 percent of Club-endorsed candidates won. More
importantly, the environment played a critical role in determining the
outcome in dozens of races. Environmental protection, said Pope, came
of age as a new "third rail of American politics" -- a tradition that
public officials dare not threaten because it carries such voltage with
But back in January, these results were far from assured.
The new year dawned ominously. The national parks were closed. The
Environmental Protection Agency sent home 2,400 Superfund workers and
stopped toxic-waste cleanup work at 609 sites. The federal government
ceased all but essential operations while the president and Congress
locked horns over the federal budget.
The Sierra Club and its allies had managed to prevent most of the worst
of Congress' attacks on the environment from becoming law during 1995.
But Republican leaders were attaching pieces of their stalled agenda --
from cutting EPA spending to drilling the Arctic Refuge -- as riders to
budget bills, forcing the president to choose between closing down the
government or letting anti-environmental provisions sneak into law
through the back door.
We knew from a multitude of polls that Americans cared about
environmental protection, particularly about the impact pollution has
on our health and on the health of our children. We learned from focus
groups early in the year, though, that people didn't believe these
protections were truly in danger. If that were the case, said pollster
Celinda Lake, who conducted the focus groups, "they think they'd be
hearing about in on '60 Minutes' and 'Geraldo.'"
This knowledge helped define our ambitious goals for the year: Change
the politics on environmental issues in communities across the country,
defeat anti-environmental bills and candidates, strengthen and reshape
the Club into a more effective grassroots organization and make the
environment a highly visible, winning electoral issue.
Early in the year, that translated to mobilizing citizens to tell the
president to veto the rider-ridden budget bills (which he did). The
Club's canvass and the SSC distributed eco-veto pens over the winter,
and tens of thousands of citizens mailed them to the White House. We
also continued to expose the anti-environmental exploits of
GOP leaders were slow to get the news. Republican pollster Linda DiVall
found that the public disagreed with the efforts to cut EPA funding by
one-third. Then, late in January, 30 Republican moderates sent a letter
to Speaker Gingrich saying that: "We cannot be seen as using the budget
crisis as an excuse to emasculate environmental protection."
The handwriting was clearly on the wall. We just had to hammer away
until congressional leaders opened their eyes.
In April, against the backdrop of another budget showdown between
Congress and the president, replete with riders calling for cuts in
environmental funding and enforcement, the Club kicked off its Earth
Week public education program, with thousands of volunteers
distributing 2.3 million doorhanger/postcards urging their neighbors to
tell the president and other officials to protect the environment.
For example, in Florida, the governor received 1,000 postcards telling
him to block the burning of orimulsion, a dirty petroleum-based fuel,
by a local utility. He and his cabinet subsequently voted 4-3 against
the utility's plan.
President Clinton received tens of thousands of postcards, in addition
to a barrage of letters, phone calls and e-mail appeals. Emboldened by
public opinion clearly opposed to the anti-environmental riders, he
stood his ground and GOP leaders, seeing that not just their
legislation, but their party, was taking a beating, backed down.
Over the summer, we dug up candidates' voting records and campaign
contributions from polluters. We knocked on doors, made phone calls,
tabled at county fairs, aired television ads, wrote letters to the
editor and picketed anti-environmental candidates. In dozens of ways,
we provided citizens with the information they needed to keep
environmental protections intact.
In Portland, Ore., Seattle and dozens of other cities, volunteers asked
residents to post yard signs with messages like "Clean Water, Wild
Salmon and Forests." In Maine, banners emblazoned with the message
"Protect Maine's Clean Water" flew from boats in the Great Kennebec
Festival Race, while Club volunteers educated voters about Rep. Jim
Longley's (R) votes to weaken clean water standards. These various
campaigns demonstrated the old admonition of the late United Farm
Workers leader Cesar Chavez that the secret of organizing is to talk to
one person, then talk to another person, then talk to another person.
By midsummer -- long before the leaves turned or the days shortened --
the smell of Election Day was clearly in the air and many of the
anti-environmental members of Congress began trying to make themselves
look green. Club staff and volunteers pounced on these greenscamming
In Massachusetts, John Andrews, Evelyn Silver, Jay McCaffrey and Dan
Boulton relentlessly bird-dogged Rep. Peter Blute (R) for his votes
against clean water. They used talk radio, paid advertisements, press
conferences, editorials, even street theater. "Blute responded by
calling us liberal extremists," said Andrews. "But we kept coming back
with clearly documented facts like his voting record and he eventually
lost credibility." (He also lost his seat.)
In Virginia, when Gov. George Allen (R) tried to hide his abysmal
environmental record behind a river cleanup event, chapter lobbyist
Albert Pollard grabbed headlines by pointing out the governor's stand
on reducing toxic standards.
The desire of members of Congress to look green contributed to several
significant victories over the summer -- notably the reauthorization of
an improved Safe Drinking Water Act, which GOP leaders had tried to
weaken earlier in the session.
Clinton got into the spirit too, using his administrative power to stop
a proposed gold mine outside Yellowstone National Park in August and, a
month later, to halt plans for a coal mine in southern Utah by making
the national monument designation. These actions, together with his
critical vetoes of anti-environmental bills, helped Clinton earn the
In the final days of the 104th Congress, Republican leaders once again
tried to attach anti-environmental provisions to various legislative
packages, notably appropriations bills. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska),
chair of the Senate Resources Committee, held the omnibus parks bill
hostage by attaching to it a proposal to allow clearcutting in Tongass
National Forest. But the groundswell of public opinion was too strong
and Election Day too near, and the final bill was stripped of its major
"I used to think that since we controlled the House and Senate, we
could get a few things done," said a chagrined Murkowski. "That doesn't
seem to be the case."
By fall, the Club had rolled out the last two elements of its campaign --
its non-partisan voter education effort to inform voters about the
environmental positions and voting records of candidates, and its
electoral program, in which the Club endorsed more than 200 candidates.
The Club also released "Take the Money and Run," a report that showed
that public officials who accepted the most money from polluter
political action committees had the worst environmental voting records.
All told, the Club devoted thousands of volunteer hours and $7.5
million on issue advocacy, voter education and direct electoral
activities to make environmental issues central to the national debate.
On Election Day, while the GOP maintained control of both the House and
Senate, we succeeded beyond our expectations in making the environment
a tide-turning issue. In the Club's priority races -- 53 in the House
and 11 in the Senate -- nearly two-thirds of Club-backed candidates won.
Environmental champions Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Furse
(D-Ore.), Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)
prevailed in tight races, while anti-environmental Reps. Bill Baker
(R-Calif.) and Jim Longley (R-Maine) and Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.)
went down to defeat. Clinton won by a sizable margin. "The most
dangerous place to be in this election was on an environmental hit
list," wrote Jessica Mathews six days after the election.
Even where our candidates lost, the reasons for losing were
encouraging. In Washington state, for example, Rep. Rick White (R), who
distanced himself from Gingrich's anti-environmental agenda, won. Rep.
Randy Tate (R), who didn't, lost.
Republican leaders learned a lesson: Not only do citizens care deeply
about environmental protection, but the Sierra Club and its allies will
expose any attempts to weaken those protections though back-door
maneuvers like budget riders.
Now we can take a breath and look back on the remarkable
accomplishments of the past two years. We can't rest for long. We know,
sadly, that the price of environmental protection is eternal vigilance.
Many of the same attacks on environmental standards will be resurrected
in the 105th Congress. The polluters will be expecting a return on
their millions in PAC contributions.
But the activities of this last year didn't just catapult the
environment onto center stage, they also helped strengthen the Sierra
Club and build a sturdy foundation of citizen awareness in hundreds of
communities. We'll be ready.
Up to Top