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The Planet
January/February 1999 Volume 6, Number 1


Environment Lite or the Real McCoy?

by Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director

The 1998 election proved, as Abraham Lincoln said, "You can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Conventional greenscams didn't work. U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong did photo ops of his family on the American River. Rep. Rick White showed his district how much his family likes to hike in the mountains.

But the Sierra Club helped get the message to voters that Fong supported building a dam on one fork of the American, and that White had regularly voted to turn the mountains over to the timber companies.

The Club won 88 percent of the close races in which it invested substantial resources - 38 out of 43. Environmental referenda and bond measures had their best year in decades. The Economist wrote that "of all the groups that invested in this year's election, the best rate of return was by the pro-environment Sierra Club."

And in the days preceding and following the 1998 election, a surprising number of governors, senators, representatives and presidential aspirants called the Sierra Club casting about for new environmental initiatives to solidify their green credentials. Our issues seem poised, for the first time since 1994, to move forward.

But will they?

Given the ongoing influence of campaign contributions, it's just as likely that greenscamming will merely get more sophisticated and that the year 2000 will see the politics of "Environment Lite."

Because symbolic gestures look good to voters, and don't alienate campaign contributors, there's a powerful incentive for politicians to put on a good show and duck the heavy lifting.

Our job is to not let them get away with it.

It's easy to discredit a bad idea. It takes more time, more energy and more communicating to discredit a weak, but superficially appealing proposal.

For each of our newly established top priorities - protecting wildlands, ending commercial logging on federal lands, cleaning up our waterways and curbing sprawl - we will need to articulate visionary goals and lay out interim benchmarks.

Then, consistently and relentlessly, we must thank politicians for meeting them and criticize them for falling short. Environment Lite is what we'll get if we don't.

Environment Lite is replacing a fraction of the money Congress has siphoned from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The real thing would be fully funding the LWCF and the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund and other critical resource investment programs. Environment Lite is the recent Environmental Protection Agency proposal to let the operators of massive factory hog-feeding operations pick their own inspectors. The real thing would be requiring a real sewage treatment plant for a city of 250,000 hogs, just like a city of 250,000 people needs.

Environment Lite is a partial, interim moratorium on logging roadless areas in our national forests. The real thing would be a complete and permanent moratorium on logging those areas as a first step toward phasing out all logging on federal lands.

Environment Lite is a few more dollars for parks and mass transit, with ongoing billions in subsidies to developers and their sprawl. The real thing would be to invest in restoring the core of our cities and make developers pay their own bills.

Voters want the real thing. The Sierra Club can give them enough information, clearly enough, often enough and rapidly enough to give them a shot at teaching politicians the right lesson from election 1998.

It's time for the real McCoy.

Go on to the next article, "In Kayaks and Courtrooms, Water Activists Dive In."
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