Environmental Activists Adapt to Insider Role


On a Sunday afternoon 10 days before President Clinton’s State of the Union address, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met in the White House with about a dozen leaders of major environmental groups.

A week later, Gore met with the leaders again to brief them about the contents of Clinton’s economic package. It contained 19 of 30 measures recommended by the Sierra Club, one of the groups in the meetings.

“I’ve spent more time visiting the President and vice president in the last two weeks than in the last 12 years,” National Wildlife Federation President Jay D. Hair said after the meetings.

After being relegated to the role of agitator on the outside of the last two Republican administrations, environmental groups appear to be wielding more influence at the White House than any time in several decades. Their ranks are being tapped for key appointments and their views solicited.


From fee hikes for cattle grazing on public lands to an energy tax, the longtime agenda of major environmental groups is being incorporated into Administration policy.

Western organizations that represent users of public lands are alarmed, and even environmental groups realize that the transition from an opposition force to practical policy-makers will challenge them in new ways.

“You can always be opposed to something,” Hair said. “It’s much more difficult to say yes.”

Gore, long a friend of environmental groups, and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who owes his post in part to lobbying by these activists, provide the pipeline into the Administration.

“I know these guys so well,” Hair said. “I feel comfortable calling them, and they feel comfortable calling me.”

The most striking changes are occurring at Interior, a sprawling department that includes agencies with often conflicting missions: the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which have a strong conservationist ethic, and the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Minerals Management Service, which are more industry and user-oriented.

George T. Frampton Jr., Babbitt’s assistant secretary for parks and wildlife, is former president of the Wilderness Society, an environmental group that frequently sued previous administrations.

His BLM director, Jim Baca, was a member of the Wilderness Society’s governing council whose appointment has unnerved timber, mining and ranching interests in the West. Babbitt formerly served as president of the League of Conservation Voters.

“It’s amazing,” said a longtime Interior Department official. “There’s not a commodities interest among them. Most (of Babbitt’s appointments) are environmentalists.”

At the powerful Office of Management and Budget, which influences spending for all departments, the second-ranking official in charge of policy is Alice Rivlin, former head of the Wilderness Society’s governing board.

Many ranchers, miners and loggers are horrified, fearful that environmentalist-backed Administration proposals to make public lands more expensive could devastate their industries.

In most western states, including California, more than half of the land is owned by the federal government. An estimated 40,000 permit holders, including cattle producers, miners and loggers, use the acreage. About 20% of beef cattle and half of the nation’s lambs and wool are produced on federal lands in the West.

In a move long advocated by environmental groups, the Administration has proposed raising fees for grazing, charging royalties on gold and other hard rocks extracted from public lands, and ending government subsidized timber sales.

Babbitt this month signed a notice that will prevent subordinates from issuing patents to miners on federal lands, a process that transfers ownership of government property to private hands. He also is expected to support legislation to enlarge two national monuments in the California desert and reclassify them as national parks.

While former Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan attempted to cater to western industries using public lands, Clinton’s appointee to head the Bureau of Land Management has been outspoken in his criticism of the so-called “wise use” movement.

The movement is an informal coalition of public land users who view environmentalists as the enemy and fight doggedly to maintain cheap access to public lands.

The Clinton Administration’s intention to charge more for the use of the lands and its statements in support of the Endangered Species Act are expected to bolster recruitment to “wise use” groups and possibly boost their fund raising.

“Babbitt is out of the (environmental) movement, and its objective is to turn everything from the 100th meridian to the Cascades into a park so people can drive through and marvel at how quaint we all look,” said William Perry Pendley, president and chief legal officer of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the legal arm of the “wise use” movement.

While he was Bush’s Interior secretary, Manuel Lujan Jr. said it did not make sense politically to try to please environmental groups because they would never be satisfied.

Striving to show that they can be counted upon if their agenda is advanced, environmental groups are calling on their members to lobby for Clinton’s proposed higher charges for use of public lands and the energy tax.

Hair said the Wildlife Federation has urged its network of 5.3 million members to write letters to members of Congress in support of the proposals. “We have to give them (the Administration) the rationale for doing things differently and build the public support for them to do that,” Hair said.

But maintaining a watchdog status without offending their friends or reducing their influence in the Administration will not be easy.

“I think it’s going to be a very delicate time,” said John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Hair predicted that environmental groups will now find it harder to lead on environmental issues because they will have to provide workable plans, not just criticism of the status quo.

“I find that exciting,” he said, “but it calls upon the environmental community to a new level of intellectual rigor and responsibility to participate as players in this process in the Clinton-Gore Administration.”

It also can make for some awkward moments.

Jim Maddy, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, said he decided heading into the meeting with Gore and environmental leaders to separate his relationship with “my good friend the vice president” from his responsibilities as an environmental activist.

“ ‘We’re still advocacy organizations,’ ” Maddy told Gore. “ ‘Don’t be disappointed if we don’t respond immediately with wholehearted praise for your proposal, and remember, Mr. Vice President, we are not supposed to be satisfied.’ ”

Two hours later, Maddy walked out of Gore’s office unable to “find anything wrong” with the President’s plan.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, cautions that much more remains to be accomplished and dismisses speculation that environmental groups may find it harder to raise money and attract members with a friendly Administration.

“People who have given to the environmental community are not happy with what is going on in the world,” Pope said, “and that is not going to change because we have a new Administration. We have an opening. We have an opportunity. We do not yet have change.”

The durability of the love affair hinges heavily on Gore and Babbitt and the political appointees drawn from environmental groups.

“I would say the environmental movement by and large joined in support of President Clinton because of Al Gore . . . and because we believed that people like Bruce Babbitt would be appointed secretary of the Interior,” Adams said.

So far, Gore’s influence on environmental issues has been strong.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is headed by Carol M. Browner, a Gore protege who is married to an environmental activist. She has named a Sierra Club director and an Environmental Defense Fund trustee as assistant administrators. Another former Gore aide is heading a White House office on environmental policy.

Clinton’s economic stimulus package includes an array of initiatives supported by environmental activists, including plans to improve energy efficiency, enhance drinking water quality and improve waste water treatment.

But the relations between environmental lobbyists and the Administration will inevitably be strained over time. Even Bush started out with cordial, albeit cooler, relations with environmental groups, which by the end of his term were harshly critical of him.

Although Clinton has proposed putting a chunk of his government spending program into projects environmentalists favor, he also supports building more highways and continuing some agricultural subsidies opposed by environmental activists.

“I think the environmentalists will end up very disappointed and angry because I have a feeling they will be gradually raising the bar (asking for more and more) every time they get something they want,” said an Interior Department official.

Indeed, many of the environmental issues facing the Administration, including measures to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels to reduce global warming, could require politically unpopular measures.

“It is a honeymoon,” said the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Adams. “But lots of people stay together after the honeymoon.”