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The Planet
Beating Back Bush

New president's early actions divide instead of heal

By John Byrne Barry

Alaska's Tongass National ForestWithin an hour of being sworn into office, President George W. Bush ordered federal agencies to halt action on all the final rules that President Clinton had issued, including designations of national monuments and the ban on roadbuilding and logging in 58 million acres of national forests. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club was asking its members to telephone and fax their senators and urge them to oppose the nominations of cabinet appointees Gale Norton and John Ashcroft. By week's end, said Outreach Coordinator Jen Jackson, who led the phone-banking and Web advocacy effort, Club members clogged all 100 senators' phone lines with a total of more than 18,000 faxes and 13,000 calls.

The fight has begun.

With what Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton called "the most anti-environmental cabinet since Ronald Reagan's" and a Republican majority, albeit slight, in both the House and Senate, the Sierra Club has its work cut out for it. "The picture is bleak," said Hamilton, "but far from hopeless."

Interior Secretary Norton advocates drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has argued for industries to police themselves on environmental laws. As a senator from Missouri, Attorney General Ashcroft compiled a League of Conservation Voters score of 3.7 percent.

(Take a look at the Club's take on the Bush Cabinet.)

Of course, it's not President Bush per se, or even his cabinet, who will publicly lead the assault on the environment. His allies in Congress will do that.

So what's the Sierra Club going to do?

Simple: Make the bad guys feel pain.

"Visibility is our primary weapon," said Julia Reitan, director of the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services in the Club's San Francisco office. "When our elected officials vote against the environment, we will challenge them privately and publicly. Relentlessly."

The Club's fight against Norton illustrated the broad range of visibility efforts.

Within days of Norton's nomination, the Club issued statements and staged press conferences exposing her dismal record on environmental protection and calling on senators to vote against confirmation. A week later, the Club launched radio and television ads in seven states and the District of Columbia.

Then came phone banks, a Web-based fax campaign, letters to the editor, more press conferences.

"We asked our members to do two things," said Reitan, "first to personally contact their senators - by phone, fax, letter or e-mail - and urge a no vote on Gale Norton. That was a private communication. Second, and just as important, was to convey that same message publicly - in a letter to the editor, by talking with neighbors or colleagues at work."

The Club contacted thousands of members via e-mail, urging them to fax their senator, and giving them the option to forward the information to a friend. According to Jackson, that doubled the number of faxes. More than 7,000 new activists joined the campaign.

In the end, 24 senators voted to oppose Norton - twice as many as opposed James Watt in 1981 and more than have ever voted against any previous interior secretary. "One quarter of the Senate has put George Bush and Gale Norton on notice that their anti-environmental agenda is going to run into serious trouble in the Congress," said Dana Wolfe, who helped head up the Club's lobbying effort against Norton.

"The fundamental lesson we learned from defeating Newt Gingrich and his war on the environment back in 1995," said Reitan, "was that we had to prove to elected officials that it wasn't just Sierra Club members, but a majority of the American people, who cared about clean air and clean water and wild forests."

And poll after poll confirms this to be the case. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll in January 2000 found that seven in 10 Americans say protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. A February 2000 League of Conservation Voters poll found that 77 percent of Americans want either stronger enforcement of current laws or stronger laws.

Reitan stressed that getting large numbers of "regular" people involved is key to defending the environment.

She recalled an incident in Seattle several years ago when she stood in front of an ironing board full of postcards advocating salmon protection. "I flagged down this guy, but he looked like he was going to blow me off, so I said to him, 'Please sign this postcard. Our goal this weekend is 20,000 postcards.'

"He looked surprised, came over and signed it. Because it was big. He wanted to be part of something big. That's what the Sierra Club does, amplify each voice. You're not alone. It's you and thousands of others."

Utah Rep. James Hansen (R) has said he will work to reverse President Clinton's wild forest protection measure and national monument designations. Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, is set to introduce a bill that would open the Arctic Refuge to oil companies.

In late February, Congress is expected to begin work on a Supplemental Appropriations bill, which is likely to be loaded down with anti-environmental riders.

The Sierra Club will have to be big in the coming month. "We will be," said Reitan.

Take Action

If you weren't contacted to voice your opposition to Norton and Ashcroft, and want to be involved in future Web-advocacy campaigns, send your e-mail address to:

Also see our activist tips to find other ways to participate.

"Next time," said Jackson, "and there will be a next time, we'll ask you to help."

Photo Courtesty USFS

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