Lesson from 43 Earth Days: Successful green politics is grassroots

Source: Seattle PI

Seattle PI - Joel Connelly

WASHINGTON, D.C. --  Earth Day was born at a Seattle speech nearly 44 years  ago, when Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin announced a national teach-in on the  environment and urged young people to rally to defense of the Earth, as they had  to resist the Vietnam War and stand for civil rights.

An enduring national movement was born.  It soon had President Richard  Nixon --  the sort of guy who was photographed walking on an ocean beach in his  wingtips --  signing landmark environmental legisation.

By contrast, the trench warfare of today's environmental controversies could  be witnessed from the passenger list on Alaska Airlines' Friday morning  Washington, D.C.-to-Seattle flight.

In the cabin was Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who with her senator-governor  father has fought 33 years to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil  drilling.  A few rows away sat Subhankar Banerjee, the young photographer  whose gorgeous book on the refuge, "Seasons of Life and Land," hepled derail the  Bush administration's drill-baby-drill strategy. The Smithsonian famously  censored a Banerjee photo display.

Murkowski and Alaska's boomer congressional delegation can't get Congress to  send drilling rigs and haul roads out onto the Refuge's coastal plain.  But  conservationists can't pass legislation to protect the plain as calving ground  for the Porcupine caribou herd.  (Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is  sponsoring such a bill.)

The heady days of 1970s-era bipartisan legislating are done.  But the  Tea Party crowd in the Republican-run House of Representatives --  strumpets of  Big Oil and Big Coal --  have been blocked from eviscerating laws that have  cleaned up America's air and water.

"It is time to stop being defensive and start being offensive," Sen. Cantwell  declared at an Alaska Wilderness League dinner here on Wednesday.

But how? Here are some thoughts from one of those students who was teaching  in long-ago in 1970 on that first Earth Day.

-- All successful environmental politics is local.  The top-down attacks  on the 1,700-long Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline have not swayed public  opinion, and probably not President Obama.  It's one thing to have Robert  F. Kennedy Jr. and actress Daryl Hannah arrested at the White House.   Apologies to Hannah's most famous movie title, but persuading a country requires  more than a splash.

By contrast, the anti-coal-port movement in the Northwest is growing in leaps  and bounds.  It's a grassroots effort based in towns through which  mile-and-a-half-long coal trains would pass.  It has far outclassed an  industry campaign consisting typically of TV commercials, an "astroturf" front  group and legions of flack-mercenaries.

-- Deploying knowledge gets results.  Demonstrations, press releases and  WashPIRG news conferences designed to cop media attention are as typically  Seattle as gray, overcast weather.  Conservation victories, by contrast,  are constructed by long-distance runners who play beyond the  TV cameras.

The tallest trees in Canada would have gone to the mill had not a young  Vancouver photographer-cartographer  named Randy Stoltmann discovered many  of them, mapped them, "outed" plans to log them, built trails into places like  the Carmanah Valley,  and written "Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of  British Columbia."

Jim Campbell and Carol Kaska, and Tom Campion, were also on Friday's  flight.  Campbell and Kaska run Arctic Treks, which has rafted journalists,  photographers, scientists and senators down Artic Refuge rivers.  Campion,  a successful businessman, has underwritten photo-essay books on  the Arctic.

Together, they have exposed --  and exposed, and exposed -- what a bloodless  liar then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton was when she called the coastal plan  "flat white nothingness."  It is far from the "flat crummy place" described  by an ARCO flack.

-- Environmental battles require allies and GENUINE coalitions. Montana and  Idaho are two states where miners and loggers have run wild, leaving vast  clearcuts in the Big Sky state and superfund cleanup sites from Wallace, Idaho  to Butte, Mont.

In trying to preserve what's wild and beautiful in both states,  the  Montana Wilderness Association and Idaho Conservation League have made  allies.  They've enlisted hunting and fishing groups to protect  habitat.  They've made common cause with conservative ranchers to keep  big-box stores out of riparian zones. Boisterous arguments in the bar are part  and parcel of their annual meetings.

Washington has seen established conservation groups make common cause with  big Seattle-area industry.  They throw elaborate fundraising  breakfasts.  Business bigwigs share boards.  The state's rural  residents, rightfully, feel left out.  So, for that matter, do  grassroots activists.

-- Don't expect instant gratification.  Sen. Cantwell jokes that forcing  the Department of Energy to clean up Hanford is "a lifelong occupation."   The battle over Alaska's Arctic coastline has raged since "Project  Chariot."  In the 1960s, mad atomic scientists (led by Dr. Edward Teller)  plotted to explode atomic weapons to excavate a new harbor at  Point Hope.

A Richland worker and boating enthusiast named Rich Steele fought 25 years to  protect the 47-mile-long Hanford Reach, the last undammed stretch of Columbia  River between Bonneville Dam and the Canadian border.  It is spawning  rounds for the river's last big, wild salmon run.

In 2000, President Clinton designated the Hanford Reach National Monument,  protecting the river.  A jubilant Rick Steele took Vice President Al Gore  for a spin on his jet boat, with his usual refrain --  "This is a river!!!" --   as the boat hit the first currents of a non-reservoirized Columbia. (The wind in  Gore's face exposed America's most carefully combed-over bald spot.)

We live in a world of shortened attentions spans, with instant  gratification demanded.

Saving stuff, and protecting the Earth, requires persistent bottoms-up  work.  I worry that national environmental nabobs have forgotten the  1970-era slogan:  "Think globally, act locally."

OK, it's frustrating, but in the words of the late Alaska activist Celia  Hunter, who helped create the Arctic Refuge:   "Just when you feel there is  no hope, a miracle happens."

Miracles must be earned.