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The Problem of Defining “Real” Environmentalists

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In a recent edition of the Missoulian, I read another in the seemingly endless series of opinion pieces and letters from a member of the environmentalist community who spent most of his time defining who was not inside the club of those who are “real environmentalists.” I could link to the specific article, but what would be the point? At their core, all of the letters and pieces make the same argument: if an environmental organization isn’t as radical (not a pejorative, just a descriptive term) as the one(s) the writer prefers, the organization is little more than a corporate front group that might as well be clear cutting forests as their primary mission.

It’s a neat rhetorical trick: without the difficulty of engaging in substantive debate, these champions of real environmentalism confer authenticity on themselves as they deny it to those whose views do not align perfectly with their own. And without the need to actually pass legislation or policy, because purists have no time for the challenge of building coalitions and influencing policymakers, the writers critique every hint of compromise and every concession as a betrayal of the planet. They can ride off on their own solar-powered Rocinantes, certain that they, unlike so many others, are truly the champions of the environment.

But reality is just a bit more complicated than those who bestow the mantle of “real” environmentalism on themselves and select others seem willing to admit. While it’s incredibly emotionally satisfying to be a purist and unwilling to compromise, that’s almost never going to accomplish substantive change in our overly complicated, multi-layered, federalist system. If you want to protect a piece of land from development, you might have to work with local, state, and federal agencies. You might have to mobilize members of the local community, some of whom are less than friendly to environmentalism. Hell, you might even have to have a meeting with the industry people involved and see if there is an alternative possible.

You’re sure as hell not going to make those changes calling everything who doesn’t share your exact views names and refusing to listen to them. And you’re sure as hell not going to build a larger movement when so much of your rhetorical firepower is spent telling people that they don’t belong in your club, rather than finding areas of common interest and values.

The effort to define “real” environmentalists shares more than a little in common with the efforts of some Republicans to limit authentic membership in their party to those who hold retrograde views on civil rights, the Civil War, and musket ownership.

All that being said, a few caveats are in order. Mainstream Democrats certainly are guilty of the sins of exclusion, too. For my part, I’d like to see them try to score fewer political points by attacking environmental groups and make good-faith efforts to include their viewpoints in policy discussions. The Democratic Party isn’t likely to adopt those views wholesale, but the dialogue would be improved by having the voices in our discussions. In the current climate, more radical environmental groups serve a useful purpose as a punching bag for politicians on both sides of the aisle, which does little to protect the environment or help political discourse.

And I don’t want these more radical groups to stop their efforts to use litigation and other means to protect the environment. Are they wrong sometimes? Probably. Do they go too far in some cases? Undoubtedly. But their role, as passionate advocates who push for the extreme is as necessary as the compromise at the center of the debate.

All I ask, and what I have been trying to write about for years, is that members of these more radical organizations consider the impact of their refusal to acknowledge that other people, good people, can care about and fight for the environment without sharing all of their views, that those good people can indeed be “real” environmentalists.

As long as the environmental community is riven by accusations that are emotionally satisfying efforts to exclude well-meaning people from the community and to demonize others making good faith efforts, the only real winners are the extraction industries who exploit the division.

Let’s have passionate fights about policy; let’s disagree about the best way to implement change, but can we please stop acting like only this who share our views belong in the conversation?

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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  • The process of selling one’s soul, as we all know, Is laborious, requiring much rationalizing and obfuscation. The internal dialogue is tedious and boring, as demonstrated here. Projection plays a large role, calling those who have stuck to their principles traitors. In the end, the person who has struck the deal with the devil has to come to terms with the devil.

    Good luck, Pogie.

  • Now retired I had a wonderful career in environmental protection in Montana. I chuckle at the what makes a “real” environmentalist debate. I see it more as political activists seeking to adjust public policy and environmental pragmatists who quietly get the job done “on the ground”. We need both the activists and the pragmatists. Environmental activists need a high profile to be successful (think Mt Environmental Info Center) Environmental pragmatists often need a low profile (think Montana Nature Conservancy or Montana Trout Unlimited). Montana is blessed with a full spectrum of folks who care about the environment and it shows!

      • Believe it or not, Paul/Mark, it is complicated. You can believe strongly in a cause but still have to abide incremental change. You can fight for your beliefs, but negotiation and compromise are steps taken toward a goal. A person who accepts nothing short of their world view will accomplish nothing.

        By the way, John Wilson, I like your rather upbeat take on the environmental dichotomy.

      • And you are …? I made it clear and in public that I was changing my screen name, and why. Please respect my wishes.

        Compromise is an element of negotiation. It is the last in line, after you have fought to get everything you can. Pogie’s way, the Democrat way, the Trout Unlimited and Montans Wilderness Association way is to compromise first, before fighting.

        That’s also known as losing.

        • Thus spaketh the authoritarian type, the guy who likes that feel’of power over others, giving him a little boner twitch? Does it make up for your other deficiencies? Was that how it felt when you were the hall monitor in grade school?

          Banning is the gasping breath of the empty soul of the person with no means of rowing his own boat. It’s a way of making a statement, “I am smart” when “I am shallow” works better. It fits a guy like you, emotionally vacant, craving respect, imitating a human shell. Ban me, you miserable coward. After you do, I am still the better man. As with you too Pogie.

  • Sucking up to the status quo does not qualify one activist, or any activist group, as “real.” Priorities matter. If electing Democrats ranks as a higher priority than protecting the environment, well then, what is so important about needing validation as “an environmentalist” or “environmental group?” An honest assessment would disclose proud political activists interested in environmental issues without the disguise.

    Here’s the rub: money. The IRS qualifies organizations for not-for-profit, public interest – 501(c)(3) – status based on criteria that generally excludes expenditures related to campaign politics.

    There’s a lot of waste, fraud and abuse in the system right now simply because both parties are deeply involved in laundering money, in-kind contributions, mailing lists, and any number of other extra-legal political activities under the tax-exempt status that forbids much of what’s going on today under various labels, including “environmentalist” or “environmental group.” The grantors know it, and the grantees know it. The politicians know it, and apparently Pogie and Co. either don’t know it, or condone it. The fact is, today, there are damn few environmentalists or environmental groups today that are not playing politics as a priority, and protecting the environment as an incidental activity, or simply a cover story.

    There is a simple test: ” Show me the acres (protected).” Accomplishments. Effectiveness. Contrast and compare and it’s clear why there is no agreement among so-called environmentalists.

    “It’s really important to understand this because people are always being asked to be reasonable. There is no such thing as being reasonable when somebody is putting your head on a chopping block. People are deceived all the time: “Let’s get a few of you together and talk it over, we’re all reasonable people.” You are dead in the water if you buy that.” – David Brower

    • “Show me the acres (protected).” Show me acres that aesthetically resemble the state they were temporily in after the mass die off of their apex predators but before the introduciton of new apex predators, I think is what you mean here.

      • No, what I mean is that real places are fought for and defended, allowed to continue to exist, functioning without the intervention of bulldozers, feller bunchers and other industrial equipment and human “financializers.” Imagine what you will, but very few individuals or groups actually defend against real threats to forests, fish and wildlife habitat and water quantity and qualilty. Most of what you see, or think you see, is fake.

  • The term environmentalist may no longer be a useful one, and ultimately, we are discussing subjective values as absolutes. Which doesn’t work very well.

    If on 100,000 acres, 10,000 are clearcut, 40,000 are open for motorized use, and 60,000 are managed as wilderness, what is the status of that 100,000 acres?

    Some “environmentalists” would say the existence of clearcuts and motorized use renders the entire 100,000 acre block ravaged and destroyed. Some would be fine with it. Some would want the entire 100,000 acres managed as Wilderness with an exception- that mountain biking be allowed. Others would want the whole thing honeycombed with motorized trails.

    I feel for groups like AWR, because there are popular groups out there like the RMEF, who at times do support legislation that is unnecessary, of which their arguments for can be bald-faced lies. That said, one could still feel that way and still support the RMEF because an argument can be made that acreage saved from development matters more than anything else. To some though, logging is development, and the value is lost. Again, subjective.

    Take the FJRA, I have heard it referred to as “Tester’s mandated logging bill” – which is true. Is 100,000 acres of mandated logging acceptable in the face of the fact that 580,000 acres of wilderness would be gained? I don’t think that is an easy question. How about Recreation Management Area acreage, which is essentially roadless areas that allow mountain biking and snowmobiling. How do we quantify their value in respect to the value of wilderness vs the value of motorized areas, vs the value of areas that do not have roads but were recently logged? Etc…….

    The problem is people argue with out quantifying value of management policies, which lends itself to arguments too broad to be useful and allows the arguers to perpetually talk past one another.

    To some self-identifying environmentalists, NREPA is a wonderful bill that would protect some of the most critical and beautiful habitat in the northern rockies. To others, who really do care just as much about the environment as the former group, NREPA could simply be referred to as “That Anti-Mountain Biking Bill”.

    I believe most groups out there serve an important role, and issue-specific groups get the most done.

    • The name of the game in politics is controlled opposition, or for those who want to log and destroy the remaining roadless areas to also control groups that supposedly defend those lands. It is not an easy matter to understand.Some groups, like Trout Unlimited, Montana Wilderness and Montana Wildlife, have clearly been compromised by foundation money and have abandoned their,original missions, not seeking compromise first,middle and last.

      These groups have adopted the mantra that the original groups who still hold high ideals and fight for them are “purists” who want perfect when good will do. That is PR talk, a way of undermining the true environmental movement by painting it as extremist.

      Pogie, in this post, repeats that mantra, unknowingly (?) adopting the controlled opposition stance against true environmentalists,

      One way to spot a compromised group: Lots foundation money and lots of positions and salaries.,

    • Try to apply the scarcity principle, or rule of scarcity to answer those tough choices. 100,000 acres is too small an area to make those important value/policy judgments. Grizzly bears are scarce, mountain bikes, not so much. Clean water is scarce, areas for snowmobiling, not so much. Areas where sustainable, economical logging can occur in the Northern Rockies is a scarce commodity, logs sold at below-cost-of-production prices on public land, not so much. There is a glut of sold and uncut stumpage in Region 1. Why? Beating a dead horse ie. subsidized logging, is only fun for those who can continue to profit from it.

  • Hi Don,

    I posted a very similar comment when Pete Talbot tackled the same issue last week here on this blog (https://themontanapost.com/2015/09/09/environmental-discord/).

    I personally don’t ever recall using the terms ‘pseudo-environmentalists’ or ‘real environmentalists,’ and I honestly haven’t heard many people at all in the ‘environmental movement’ use those terms either. So I’d caution against using Bill Baum’s choice of labels in his personal opinion piece as representing the entire ‘environmental movement.’ But I do think that’s what you’ve done here.

    However, like I acknowledged to Pete, a ‘divide’ clearly does exist, and it exists mainly, in my opinion, because of a huge divide over policy and politics.

    I very much wish that ‘environmentalists’ in Montana could “speak with a unified voice” on topics of National Forest management, logging and Wilderness protection, but it’s tough when groups like the Montana Wilderness Association made a largely financial decision (thanks to millions in out-of-state foundation money) and chose to meet in private with the a handful of timber mill owners to try and get politicians (first Conrad Burns, then Senator Tester) to mandate huge increases in National Forest logging (including in roadless wildlands of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest), in exchange for some Wilderness protection. (See map here: http://www.sharetrails.org/public_lands/images/Tester_Map_1.JPG).

    And you know what? It’s a good thing those environmentalists (“Real” “Pseudo” or otherwise) weren’t successful over the past few years because lookie here….

    Senator Tester, Senator Daines and Rep Zinke are trying to pressure to Forest Service to extend timber sale contracts and give more flexibility to the timber industry because (get this!) of a continued lack of demand and continued global economic issues/crisis (some related to Canada, some related to China and other global markets.

    Read more about that here: http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/09/19/looming-expiration-of-softwood-tariff-worries-beleaguered-timber-industry/

    Yep, those are the realities facing the timber industry in Montana and elsewhere. Economic realities that some environmentalists have been trying to point out and educate the public about, all the while other environmentalists and their timber partners were working for the past few years trying to tell the public that we just need to mandate more logging on our national forests.

    Given the fact that Tester, Daines and Zinke have just asked the Forest Service to extend timber sale contracts, it’s certainly a good thing that none of their mandating logging bills passed. Remember, as Tester’s bill was written, the Forest Service would’ve been required to pump out a minimum of X-acres of timber sales per year no matter what the market conditions and global economic realities can support.

  • Here’s a good real-world, current affairs example featuring how different groups (“Real” “Pseudo” or otherwise) reacted to the ‘historic’ and ‘epic’ decision by the federal government to not list the Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

    Please note that The Pew Charitable Trusts has given the Montana Wilderness Association over $1 million to fund their work with a few timber mill owners to pass Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

    “These strong, science-based plans constitute a historic conservation action.”
    – Ken Rait, The Pew Charitable Trusts

    “They failed to adopt key conservation measures identified by the government’s own scientists and sage-grouse experts as critical to conserving the bird, such as protecting winter habitat or confronting the growing threat of climate change to the species’ habitat.” – Jamie Rappaport, President of Defenders of Wildlife and the former Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service

    “The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems.” – Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians

    “Environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians, have hinted at suing to force stronger protections. The guardians charged that BLM ‘removed priority habitat’ status from 16 million acres in the sage-grouse habitat that was deemed essential for the bird’s conservation as recent as 2013. Nevada lost 47 percent of its priority habitat, “resulting in a scattering of tiny and isolated … habitat fragments that offer little hope of maintaining grouse populations” that have declined by more that 25 percent since 2007, the group said.”

  • Here’s another real-world example from today’s Missoula Indy that I’d consider a ‘must read.’

    http://missoulanews.bigskypress.com/missoula/birdbrained/Content?oid=2483263

    Of particular interest is how the facts presented by WildEarth Guardians wildlife biologist match up with rah-rah rhetoric from groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Wildlife Federation and other groups and individuals that have strong ties (including Dark Money ties) to Dem Party politicians in Montana.

    Also, please see how the ‘Grazing Improvement Act,’ which was attached as one of the anti-environmental, anti-public lands, anti-science riders to the National Defense Bill in Dec 2014 makes the new sage grouse plans even worse. Remember, both Senator Tester and (at the time) Rep Daines championed the ‘Grazing Improvement Act’ in press conferences and press releases (even though they both got the details of what it actual does totally wrong). Also, don’t forget that nobody with groups like the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Trout Unlimited raised one single red flag about the ‘Grazing Improvement Act.’

    “The new plans include targets for livestock grazing to leave behind enough grass—7 inches tall—to provide adequate hiding cover for sage grouse. But these targets won’t be applied until grazing permits are renewed. Since permits have 10-year terms, it could take years for changes to take effect. And thanks to the Grazing Improvement Act tacked on to the defense spending bill in 2013, when federal agencies are short on money or personnel to issue new grazing permits, permits are automatically renewed for another decade under the same old terms.” – WildEarth Guardians

  • Yet another real-world example I would hope readers would consider.

    Think back over the past few years, going back to the economic crisis of 2008 or so.

    The environmental groups opposed to Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill – the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act – which would have required the Forest Service in Montana to pump out an additional 100,000 acres (156 square miles) of industrial logging projects on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai National Forests – consistently brought up global economic realities, including NAFTA and Canada dumping lots of lumber into U.S. markets.

    Meanwhile, groups like the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Trout Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation and Greater Yellowstone Coalition remained absolutely silent about all these global economic realities facing the timber industry and instead tried to convince Montana citizens that the ‘solution’ was simply to have politicians start mandating huge increases in public lands logging.

    Remember, just the other day the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service told Congress that last year 16% of all U.S. Forest Service timber sales offered for sale to the timber industry got zero bids.

    The U.S. Forest Service has a tough enough time managing our public lands these days. Can you image the economic and government wastefulness if Tester, MWA, Trout Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the timber industry were successful, and Tester’s logging bill passed as a rider to one of those must-pass budget bills, and right now (given these global economic realities) the U.S. Forest Service would have to waste precious staff time and resources continuing to pump out more timber sales, even if the timber mills aren’t bidding on them?

    http://missoulian.com/news/local/montana-wood-products-industry-concerned-about-expiration-of-canadian-trade/article_bc5a6749-72d4-5ee8-902c-41d6c55db42d.html

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