Environment, Inc. in the Sacramento Bee -- The series:
Seeds of change Solutions sprouting from grass-roots efforts
April 26, 2001 Section: MAIN NEWS Page: A1
By Tom Knudson
Bee Staff Writer
Last of five parts --Change is knocking on the door of America's environmental movement. Change is remodeling it from within.
From the outside, the pressure is coming from ranchers, corporate executives, small-town merchants, educators, schoolkids and other ordinary people embracing a home-grown style of environmentalism that is quietly saving species, restoring forests and grasslands, and preserving open space.
From the inside, it is coming from a broad spectrum of environmentalists - chief executive officers, fund-raising specialists, state directors, program officers, lawyers and others - struggling to bring more science, entrepreneurial skill, accountability, teamwork and results to a movement they say has grown self-righteous, inefficient, chaotic and shrill.
"Haphazard conservation is worse than haphazard development. We've had haphazard conservation for 30 years," said Patrick Noonan, chairman of The Conservation Fund, a Virginia group that provides financial and technical support to small environmental organizations.
Yet this new brand of stewardship remains more seed than storm, lacking the clamor and conflict that often accompany environmental news. Its disciples do not view the world darkly. Their habitat is one of hope, not hype.
"We've effectively sold the idea that the world is screwed up," said Dan Taylor, executive director of the National Audubon Society's California chapter. "What people are looking for now are some durable solutions on how to make it better."
Just as consumer taste shapes the corporate landscape, so, too, is hunger for a new kind of environmentalism changing the conservation world. The number of environmental groups is booming - up from a few hundred in 1970 to more than 8,000 today. And most are sprouting not in traditional power centers - such as Washington, D.C., or San Francisco - but in other cities, small towns and rural areas.
The grass-roots nature of the change can be read in the names of the organizations themselves: the Malpai Borderlands Group in Douglas, Ariz.; the Henry's Fork Foundation in Ashton, Idaho; the Great Valley Center in Modesto; the Applegate Partnership in Oregon.
"People now realize they can organize themselves," said Noonan. "They can band together in their community to save that river, field, mountain or whatever. It's America at its best."
Behavioral patterns are shifting, too. No longer is influencing public policy so lofty a goal. Today, some groups focus on a more tangible prize: buying, protecting and restoring land. And no longer do all groups simply say no to economic development; today, a few are learning how to make commerce and conservation walk side by side.
Change is leafing out at the national level, as well, where five of the country's 10 largest groups focus not on advocacy but buying and protecting land - up from just one 30 years ago. Those groups - The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Ducks Unlimited, the Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Fund - have another common denominator: They are among the fastest-growing environmental groups in America.
Two of the 10 biggest groups, and many smaller ones, prosper without junk mail or telemarketing. Five are wealthy enough to compete with corporations for land. Two have their own scientific research institutes. At least two take in significant sums of money - $4 million a year or more - from corporations, including oil, timber and mining companies.
Like experimentation on the dot-com frontier, such activity is bringing a burst of creativity to the conservation community, spawning start-ups and spinoffs that bear little resemblance to conventional environmental groups.
Look closely at this landscape and you see organizations with no members, no lawyers, even no payrolls. You also see conservation efforts sprouting in unlikely places - including an Appalachian farm supply store, a commercial fishing fleet in Mexico, a fast-growing Florida suburb and cattle ranches in California and Arizona.
"You have to manage with people in mind nowadays ... You can't turn the land back to what it was in 1840," said Warner Glenn, a southeast Arizona rancher. Glenn is working with The Nature Conservancy, university scientists and others to keep grasslands healthy for rural families and for wildlife.
Priorities are beginning to change, too. No longer is the designation of parks and wilderness areas as dominant a theme. Today, some are focusing on the restoration of worked-over land, public and private alike, an approach many scientists say can produce greater benefit for the natural world. Some are taking conservation to the inner city, creating parks and cleaning up toxic sites in neighborhoods overlooked by mainstream groups.
And no longer is it enough simply to point out problems. Today, people inside the environmental movement and outside are picking up shovels, planting trees, healing wetlands, tearing out parking lots, working with government and industry - and solving problems themselves.
This new environmental frontier has no road map, no catalog of places saved or species protected. But plenty of people know it well. One is Bill Kittrell, director of the Clinch Valley program for The Nature Conservancy in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia.
Closer to Nashville than Washington, southwest Virginia seems an odd place for a branch office of the nation's largest environmental group. The countryside - thickly forested with hickory, walnut and other hardwoods - is picturesque. But, speckled with small towns and abandoned coal mines, it is no pristine wilderness. Eighty-nine percent of the area is private land.
Yet for the Conservancy, which focuses on protecting rare and endangered species, this quiet corner of Appalachia is more important than a national park. One morning not long ago, Kittrell was waist-deep in the Clinch River, trying to illustrate why.
He sloshed this way and that, using a large viewing scope to peer into the water. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. A few moments later, one of his colleagues - biologist Braven Beaty - reached into the river and scooped what looked like a small yellow-brown stone off the bottom.
"Here we go!" Beaty said. "This is a fine-rayed pigtoe mussel. This is a federally endangered species."
Held in the sun, the mussel gleamed. And Kittrell beamed. "This is what we call a G-1 species," he said. "That means there are fewer than five population groups worldwide. The loss of any one population is a threat to the entire species."
All told, southwest Virginia's rivers and creeks are home to 48 rare and endangered mussels and fish, the highest number of imperiled species in any ecosystem in the United States, outside Hawaii. That concentration of rarity - and a determination to remedy it - was what drew the Conservancy to southwest Virginia.
"Most environmentalists, they always want more," the Conservancy's former President John Sawhill told The Bee before his death last year. "We wanted to know, 'How much is enough? What do we really need to do to conserve biological diversity in the U.S.? How will we measure success?' "
"So we came up with the idea of creating what we call a conservation blueprint: a map showing all the sites nationwide that need to be protected in order to accomplish our mission," Sawhill said. On that map, a handful of areas glow red and orange - color codes for extreme biological danger. They are southwest Virginia, Hawaii and parts of California, Nevada and Florida.
"Now we know where we're headed and what we're trying to accomplish," Sawhill said.
The Conservancy also works closely with local residents, including Buddy Thomas, owner of the Castlewood Farm Supply & Garden Center and president of the chamber of commerce in Russell County, Va.
"I've heard it so many times from these farmers: 'What importance are these little mussels?' " Thomas said. "When I tell them those mussels are God's little filters to clean the water, they look at it a whole different way."
"I got a 2-year-old girl," Thomas continued. "You know what my favorite thing in the world is to do? It is to get my fishing rod and my kid and play in that creek. Everybody loves the creek. I can't find many people who want to see it hurt."
Thomas even formed his own conservation start-up - the all-volunteer Copper Creek Watershed Citizens' Awareness Group - to bring farmers, environmentalists and others together to solve problems.
"We'll get a lot further doing things together than by butting heads, making threats and telling people they can't do things," he said. "You tell people around here they can't do something, they'll do it or die."
A similar approach is unfolding outside the United States, where Conservation International, the youngest of the nation's major environmental groups, concentrates on a handful of the planet's richest biological zones, from the Congo Basin in Africa to Mexico's Gulf of California.
On turquoise water under a sweltering sun, Conservation International scientist Juan Garcia is putting a new strategy to work to save a wide variety of marine life in the gulf. He is working with the very people who are exploiting the gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Garcia labors alongside fishermen, trying to make shrimp trawling, one of the world's most wasteful fishing technologies, less destructive. Dragged behind large boats, trawl nets snare everything in their path, including sea horses, marine turtles and silvery schools of fish too small to eat.
In the Sea of Cortez, trawl nets capture up to 9 pounds of unwanted species for every pound of shrimp, one of the highest ratios anywhere.
"We are working with six or seven vessels," Garcia said. "They are very enthusiastic about trying to find a solution."
Such community-driven conservation efforts are the brainchild of Conservation International's founder and chairman, Peter Seligmann, who believes the secret to environmental success in other countries is to "make sure everybody understands conservation is in their self-interest."
Seligmann is applying conservation to internal matters, too. A few years back, he abandoned junk-mail fund raising in favor of personal solicitations to major donors. The result: more accountability for donor dollars.
"If you have a million people giving you $25, nobody has the leverage to say - 'OK, how did you spend my money?' - because they don't care. It's just 25 bucks," he said. "But when somebody gives you $1,000, they have the right to know, and you have the obligation to inform them, how you spend their money.
"The other problem with direct mail is it requires exaggeration," Seligmann said. "You don't build effective long-term conservation programs based on exaggeration."
Even some groups that continue to raise money though the mail are doing it differently: They refuse to cry wolf.
"We very rarely say, 'The world is coming to an end, send $25,' " said Taylor, the Audubon Society leader. "What we do say is, 'Send us money so we can buy this area, restore that area.' That approach has performed nicely."
In Tucson, the Sonoran Institute takes matters a step further - it doesn't have a membership at all.
"A membership is very expensive," said Luther Propst, executive director of the organization, which protects open space across the western United States, Canada and Mexico. Instead, it raises money from foundations.
A membership "will also influence your decision-making, often in ways that take you away from science and what your field people tell you. You are tempted to oversimplify. We find that foundation officers appreciate it when you are honest."
Frustrated with junk mail, even Greenpeace is trying alternatives, including something called "direct dialogue" in which volunteers stand on street corners and ask for donations.
But instead of seeking a one-time contribution of cash, the Greenpeace volunteers are asking for a monthly credit-card or checking-account deposit, thus eliminating junk mail and cutting fund-raising costs. That approach is popular in Europe but relatively new in the United States.
"Our argument to donors is, 'This (direct deposit) is how you can really help us,' " said John Passacantando, Greenpeace's executive director. "We're spending too much money to get your money."
Some environmentalists are even taking a fresh look at the movement's most potent weapon: the law. "The law prohibits bad things; it doesn't encourage good things," said Michael Bean, a senior attorney with Environmental Defense, a major national group.
Bean, one of the nation's most seasoned endangered species lawyers, has sued to get the California desert tortoise on the endangered species list and compel American shrimp fishermen to reduce the accidental catch of sea turtles in their nets.
Now he's found a new niche: saving wildlife without litigation.
"The preconceived notion is that the best way to get results is always to tighten the screws," Bean said. "But there are some circumstances in which you get better results by creatively loosening the screws."
One such case unfolded in North Carolina where landowners, wary of land-use restrictions, were leveling pine forests to ward off an endangered woodpecker.
Bean helped broker a deal in which landowners not only agreed to stop such "panic cutting" but also to manage their forests in ways that would attract the birds - all in exchange for a guarantee from the federal government that they would suffer no new restrictions on using their land.
Bean said the idea behind such "safe harbor agreements" is simple: People who do good deeds shouldn't be punished for doing them.
Incentives are coming to regulatory matters, too.
"We believe in regulation. But you can only go so far with a regulatory system. Free enterprise is the greatest motivator the world has ever known," said Noonan, the Conservation Fund chairman.
"Developers come to us all the time," Noonan continued. "They don't want to get tied up, fight it out for years. They want certainty. I can jam any developer I want. I may not win, but I can jam them. For two, three, four years. That's power. But it's also frightening power."
When a large investment group recently announced plans to build a new subdivision in fast-growing Palm Beach County, Fla., Noonan worked with the developer to create ribbons of open space that will provide habitat for endangered species, restore surface and groundwater flows, and link neighborhoods with bicycle and pedestrian trails.
"We're not going to stop population growth, at least not in our lifetime," Noonan said. "So I suggest the next big leap is: How do we support good development?"
Increasingly, environmental groups also are using the free market to accomplish something that has proved nearly impossible for local, county and state regulators: stopping sprawl.
They are doing it by buying land, even in some of the most booming real estate markets in America. "We're un-developers," said Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land, which recently saved a choice 534-acre parcel from subdivision in the hills above San Jose, for $1.9 million.
Some of the trust's work takes place an ecosystem overlooked by many conservation groups: the inner city. In Oakland, it is turning urban blight into parks. In Los Angeles, it is converting a toxic Superfund site into a soccer field.
"There is an increased awareness that land can be recycled, that parks can be created often out of brownfields" - abandoned industrial sites, Rogers said. "It's gnarly stuff, in terms of toxics and liability. But it's a big, exciting category. We've done probably 36 brownfields projects over our history."
Noonan's Conservation Fund recently pulled off one of the biggest conservation transactions of all - buying from a logging company 300,000 acres in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire for $76.7 million.
"We outbid Wall Street on that one," Noonan said. "That's happening more and more."
Like a brokerage house for the environmental movement, the Conservation Fund brought together other nonprofit groups, foundations and public agencies to complete a transaction none could have completed on its own.
"The big weakness of our movement is we don't collaborate very well," Noonan said. "We're seeing a new set of people come into the movement who can talk the language of business and who are humble enough to know they can't do it alone."
Land also can be protected through strategies such as that adopted by California rancher Scott Stone: Restore it to ecological health. Last year, as bright orange flames raced along a creek at the Yolo Land and Cattle Co. northwest of Winters, Stone stood nearby, watching contentedly.
"You can see what we're trying to get rid of," he said, pointing to vast golden fields of yellow star thistle, medusa head and goat grass - non-native, ecologically harmful weeds and grasses.
The spread of non-native weeds and other species may seem insignificant, but it is actually one of the nation's most serious ecological problems. Exotic weeds and grasses choke out native plants, increase fire danger and destroy wildlife habitat.
Conventional remedies - herbicides and hoes - offer little hope. The problem is simply too large. For many weed species in the West, the only option is fire. And in California, few people know more about the therapeutic power of fire than Central Valley farmer John Anderson, who helped Stone plan and carry out his pastoral pyrotechnics.
"That star thistle is history!" Anderson shouted gleefully as knee-high flames raced along a dirt road.
Sitting on the ground as smoke curled around him, his face streaked with ash, Anderson turned philosophical. "We need to reinstitute a culture of fire in the West," he said. "We've feared it for years, and now nobody knows how to burn."
Anderson took advantage of his fireside chat to call for the creation of a massive new federal program to restore land to ecological health - "a national land health care system," he called it.
"You really can't nickel-and-dime habitat restoration," said Anderson, a member of the National Audubon Society board. "Most of the money we're getting now (from government agencies) is nickel and dime. We need big bucks ... We need millions and millions of dollars to fight weeds right now."
But there are alternatives to federal money, too. You can, for example, call on school kids, as The Nature Conservancy is doing south of Sacramento at its Cosumnes River Preserve.
"We decided that the way to the heart of the community was through the schoolchildren," said Mike Eaton, director of the preserve. "So we set out to create hands-on opportunities." Today, about 4,000 schoolkids a year plant trees, collect acorns and gather frog, fish and duck stories to take home.
Tapping into community spirit is also an approach used by the Malpai Borderlands Group, a network of ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico. There, free market tools such as conservation easements and cooperative grazing partnerships are put to work to protect ranches and open space critical to wildlife.
"There are very few ranchers in this country that are not pro-wildlife," said Warner Glenn - a member of the group's board - relaxing on the porch of his ranch home last year as lightning illuminated Mexico's Sierra Madre range to the south.
In 1996, Glenn became the first person to photograph a wild jaguar in the United States. He wrote a book about it and is donating a portion of the proceeds to jaguar conservation.
When the population of a rare species of leopard frog dropped precariously in a drought a few years back, another Malpai rancher, Matt Magoffin, fashioned a homemade water truck. He and his family hauled 1,000 gallons of water a week to the frogs for 2 1/2 years.
"Environmentalists are fighting with ranchers, but we both want the same goals," Magoffin said. "We want to maintain open space and keep subdivisions from spreading across the landscape."
Corporations have also joined the ranks of nontraditional conservationists. And many environmentalists are distrustful.
"The lack of accountability on the part of America's corporate leadership is back where it was in the 1870s," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. Less than 1 percent of the Sierra Club's budget comes from corporations, and such gifts are run through a rigorous environmental screening process.
But Conservation International President Russell Mittermeier embraces corporate wealth.
"The private sector drives much of what happens in the world," said Mittermeier, who has been likened to Indiana Jones for his intrepid travels through tropical jungles to save endangered primates. "One can either be in an adversarial relationship with it, or one can work with people in the private sector who are really concerned and interested in change."
Ford Motor Co. has donated more than $5 million to Conservation International for habitat protection in Brazil and Mexico. Starbucks is backing efforts to promote the cultivation of shade-tolerant coffee plants in Chiapas, Mexico, saving forests from being logged to make way for coffee plantations.
William Clay Ford Jr. - the car company's chairman - has served on the Conservation International board member. So has retired Intel Chairman Gordon Moore, who recently gave the group $35 million to start its own research arm.
Although many environmentalists say corporate support is a public relations ploy, Mittermeier said his own experience indicates otherwise.
"William Ford is as strong on this stuff as anybody in the organization," he said, "Gordon Moore is totally committed. He goes on every field trip, climbs every mountain."
The National Audubon Society welcomes corporate donations, too. "Somebody once had a great phrase when asked, 'Would you accept tainted money?' " said Dan Beard, the society's chief operating officer. "The response was, 'The only thing wrong with tainted money is there t'ain't enough of it.'
"What we ought to be doing is building an environmental ethic in corporate minds," Beard said. "We ought to be converting the world to an environmental ethic. If you just ignore people - or point fingers at them - that isn't going to do anybody any good."
The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.