Fat of the land
Movement's prosperity comes at a high price(First of five parts)
By Tom Knudson
"It was like a giant corporation," Shipley said. "Floor after floor after floor, just like Exxon or AT&T."
In San Francisco, Sierra Club board member Chad Hanson experienced a similar letdown when he showed up for a soiree at one of the city's finest hotels in 1997.
"Here I had just been elected to the largest grass-roots environmental group in the world and I am having martinis in the penthouse of the Westin St. Francis," said Hanson, an environmental activist from Pasadena. "What's wrong with this picture? It was surreal."
Soon, Hanson was calling the Sierra Club by a new name: Club Sierra.
Extravagance is not a trait normally linked with environmental groups. The movement's tradition leans toward simplicity, economy and living light on the land. But today, as record sums of money flow to environmental causes, prosperity is pushing tradition aside, and the millions of Americans who support environmental groups are footing the bill.
High-rise offices, ritzy hotels and martinis are but one sign of wider change. Rising executive salaries and fat Wall Street portfolios are another. So, too, is a costly reliance on fund-raising consultants for financial success.
Put the pieces together and you find a movement estranged from its past, one that has come to resemble the corporate world it often seeks to reform.
Although environmental organizations have accomplished many stirring and important victories over the years, today groups prosper while the land does not. Competition for money and members is keen. Litigation is a blood sport. Crisis, real or not, is a commodity. And slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact.
"National environmental organizations, I fear, have grown away from the grass roots to mirror the foxes they had been chasing," said environmental author Michael Frome, at a wilderness conference in Seattle last year. "They seem to me to have turned tame, corporate and compromising."
This series of articles -- based on more than 200 interviews, travel across 12 states and northern Mexico, and thousands of state and federal records -- will explore the poverty of plenty that has come to characterize much of the environmental movement. Some of the highlights:
Salaries for environmental leaders have never been higher. In 1999 -- the most recent year for which comparable figures are available -- chief executives at nine of the nation's 10 largest environmental groups earned $200,000 and up, and one topped $300,000. In 1997, one group fired its president and awarded him a severance payment of $760,335.
Money is flowing to conservation in unprecedented amounts, reaching $3.5 billion in 1999, up 94 percent from 1992. But much of it is not actually used to protect the environment. Instead, it is siphoned off to pay for bureaucratic overhead and fund raising, including expensive direct-mail and telemarketing consultants.
Subsidized by federal tax dollars, environmental groups are filing a blizzard of lawsuits that no longer yield significant gain for the environment and sometimes infuriate federal judges and the Justice Department. During the 1990s, the U.S. Treasury paid $31.6 million in legal fees for environmental cases filed against the government.
Those who know the environment best -- the scientists who devote their careers to it -- say environmental groups often twist fact into fantasy to serve their agendas. That is especially true in the debate over one of America's most majestic landscapes: its Western evergreen forests. A 1999 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that 39 million acres across the West are "at high risk of catastrophic fire." Yet many groups use science selectively to oppose thinning efforts that could reduce fire risk.
"A lot of environmental messages are simply not accurate," said Jerry Franklin, a professor of forest ecology and ecosystem science at the University of Washington. "But that's the way we sell messages in this society. We use hype. And we use those pieces of information that sustain our position. I guess all large organizations do that."
And sometimes when nature needs help the most, environmental groups are busy with other things.
As the tiny Fresno kangaroo rat struggled for survival in the industrialized farmland of California's San Joaquin Valley in the 1990s, for example, the environmental movement did not seem to notice.
As a fisheries conservationist tried to save rare trout species across remote parts of Oregon and Nevada, he found no safety net in major environmental groups.
As sea turtles washed up dead and dying on Texas beaches in 1993, no groups made the turtles their mascot.
"I contacted everybody and nobody listened," said Carole Allen, who rehabilitates turtles injured in fishing nets. "Everybody wants to save dolphins. Turtles aren't popular. It really gets frustrating."
Yet look closely at environmentalism today and you also see promise and prosperity coming together to form a new style of environmentalism -- one that is sprouting quietly, community by community, across the United States and is rooted in results, not rhetoric.
"I'm so frustrated with the opportunism and impulsiveness of how groups are going about things," said Steve McCormick, president of The Nature Conservancy, which uses science to target and solve environmental problems. "What's the plan? What are the milestones by which we can measure our success?"
Today's challenges are more subtle and serious than those of the past. Stopping a dam is child's play compared to halting the spread of destructive, non-native species. Protecting old-growth forests from logging is simple; saving them from fire and disease is more difficult.
But as the Bush administration takes control in Washington, many groups are again tuning up sound bites -- not drawing up solutions. "President Bush is forging full steam ahead ... to open up the Arctic!" says John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, in one of the first mass-market fund-raising letters focusing on Bush's environmental policies. "I need you to make a Special Emergency Gift."
There is no clearinghouse for information about environmental groups, no oversight body watching for abuse and assessing job performance. What information exists is scattered among many sources, including the Internal Revenue Service, philanthropic watchdogs, the U.S. Department of Justice and nonprofit trade associations.
Sift through their material and here is what you find:
Donations are at flood stage. In 1999, individuals, companies and foundations gave an average of $9.6 million a day to environmental groups, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, which monitors nonprofit fund raising.
"Our business is booming," said Patrick Noonan, chairman of the Conservation Fund, an Arlington, Va., group that provides financial and educational assistance to environmental organizations.
The dollars do not enrich equally. The nation's 20 largest groups -- a tiny slice of the more than 8,000 environmental organizations -- took in 29 percent of contributions in 1999, according to IRS Form 990 tax records. The top 10 earned spots on the Chronicle of Philanthropy's list of America's wealthiest charities.
The richest is The Nature Conservancy, an Arlington, Va., group that focuses on purchasing land to protect the diversity of species. In 1999, The Nature Conservancy received $403 million, as much as its six nearest rivals combined: Trust for Public Land, Ducks Unlimited, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, National Wildlife Federation and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Forty years ago, the environmental movement was a national policy sideshow. Today, it is a strong, vocal lobby that weighs in on everything from highway transportation to global trade. Some groups, such as the National Audubon Society and Environmental Defense, are generalists, dabbling in many things. Others, such as Ducks Unlimited and Conservation International, have found success in specialization.
Public support runs deep, too. "Many, many people feel almost religious about the environment," said Patricia Schifferle, former regional director for The Wilderness Society in California. "It really does touch their inner souls."
One recent public opinion poll commissioned by The Nature Conservancy found that 54 percent of the nation's 104 million households were "extremely concerned" or "very concerned" about the environment. An additional 31 percent were "somewhat concerned."
About three-fourths of all contributions in 1999 came from an estimated 8 million to 17 million Americans. Most personal contributions were modest, but some were not.
Vice President Dick Cheney, then-CEO of Halliburton Co., gave $10,000 to the Conservation Fund. Harrison Ford gave $5 million to Conservation International. Julian Robertson Jr., a leading money manager, gave more than $100,000 to Environmental Defense and more than $50,000 to The Nature Conservancy.
"This is a growth industry -- a huge growth industry," said Daniel Beard, chief operating officer at the National Audubon Society. "There is a lot of wealth that has accumulated in this country over the last 20 years. And people are wanting to do good things with it."
Conservation has not always been so comfortable. Much of its history is rooted in simplicity. Henry David Thoreau, perhaps America's earliest conservationist, set the tone with his 19th-century classic -- "Walden" -- about living in harmony with nature.
"Simplicity. Simplicity. Simplicity!" Thoreau wrote. "I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million, count half a dozen and keep your accounts on your thumbnail."
John Muir, the California naturalist whose spirited defense of the Sierra Nevada brought conservation to the forefront of the nation's attention a century ago, expanded on Thoreau's theme.
Living on bread, oatmeal and water, Muir would disappear into the Sierra for weeks, then return and pour his passion into print. "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings," he wrote. "Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees."
David Brower, the legendary former Sierra Club leader who led successful battles to keep dams out of Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon in the 1950s and '60s, said success springs from deeds, not dollars.
"We were getting members because we were doing things," Brower said before he died last year. "Our (strength) came from outings and trips -- getting people out. It came from full-page ads and books."
Today, there is a new approach -- junk mail and scare tactics.
Dear Friend,So begins a recent fund-raising letter from the National Parks Conservation Association, a 400,000-plus-member organization. The letter goes on to tell of the group's accomplishments, warn of continued threats, ask for money -- "$15 or more" -- and offer something special for signing up. "Free as our welcome-aboard gift ... The NPCA bean bag bear!"
Let's say you did send in $15. What would become of it?
According to the group's 1998-99 federal tax form, much of your money would have been routed not to parks but to more fund raising and overhead. Just $7.62 (51 percent) would have been spent on parks, less than the minimum 60 percent recommended by the American Institute of Philanthropy, a nonprofit charity watchdog group.
And the parks association is not alone.
Five other major groups -- including household names such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club -- spend so much on fund raising, membership and overhead they don't meet standards set by philanthropic watchdog groups.
It's not just the cost of raising money that catches attention these days. It is the nature of the fund-raising pitches themselves.
"What works with direct mail? The answer is crisis. Threats and crisis," said Beard, the Audubon Society chief operating officer.
"So what you get in your mailbox is a never-ending stream of crisis-related shrill material designed to evoke emotions so you will sit down and write a check. I think it's a slow walk down a dead-end road. You reach the point where people get turned off." Then he hesitated, adding:
"But I don't want to say direct mail is bad because, frankly, it works."
Even some of those who sign the appeals are uncomfortable with them.
"Candidly, I am tired of The Wilderness Society and other organizations -- and we are a culprit here -- constantly preaching gloom and doom," said William Meadows, the society's president, whose signature appears on millions of crisis-related solicitations. "We do have positive things to say."
Many environmental groups, The Wilderness Society included, also use a legal accounting loophole to call much of what they spend on fund raising, "public education."
In 1999, for instance, The Wilderness Society spent $1.46 million on a major membership campaign consisting of 6.2 million letters. But when it came time to disclose that bill in its annual report, the society shifted 87 percent -- $1.27 million -- to public education. The group also shrank a $94,411 telemarketing bill by deciding that 71 percent was public education.
The Wilderness Society's spokesman, Ben Beach, said that kind of accounting is appropriate because fund-raising solicitations are educational.
"No one is trying to do anything that isn't right by the rule book here," he said. "A lot of us don't particularly like getting (telemarketing) calls. But that's not to say you don't learn something."
Still, the accounting practice is controversial. Nine of the nation's 20 largest groups don't use it. "Playing games with numbers is not worth the effort or questions that would come from it," said Stephen Howell, chief operating officer at The Nature Conservancy.
"It should be called what it is," said Noonan, the Conservation Fund leader. "As we become larger and more successful, I worry about the ethics of our movement. We need to think about self-regulation and standards. If not, the ones who make mistakes are going to hurt it for all of us."
Dollars can disappear in other ways, of course.
Some groups lose money on Wall Street. In 1997, Environmental Defense watched with dismay as a $500,000 "short-selling investment partnership" tumbled to $18,000. Acknowledging it was "a lot of money to lose," the group's deputy director of operations, Edward Bailey, pointed out that Environmental Defense has done well with other investments. "No one is going to be right 100 percent of the time," he said.
Comfortable office digs and sumptuous fund-raising banquets are another drain on donor dollars. The Sierra Club spends $59,473 a month for its office lease in San Francisco. In Washington, Greenpeace pays around $45,000 a month.
In June 1998, The Nature Conservancy spent more than $1 million on a single fund-raising bash in New York City's Central Park. Carly Simon and Jimmy Buffett played. Masters of ceremonies included Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Mike Wallace and Leslie Stahl. Variety magazine reported that the 1,100 guests were treated to a martini bar and a rolling cigar station.
"The goal was to raise (our) profile among high-dollar donors," Conservancy spokesman Mike Horak said in a statement. And it paid off: $1.8 million was raised.
Fund-raising banquets never sat well with Alfred Runte, an environmental historian who served as a board member of the National Parks Conservation Association from 1993 to 1997.
"We would always go to a sumptuous hotel or the most expensive lodge -- places most Americans couldn't afford," said Runte, author of "Yosemite, The Embattled Wilderness."
"If we have to get big donors by spending money that average, dedicated members think is going to the parks, we've lost," he said. "We're no longer environmentalists. We're party-givers."
Salaries gobble up money raised, too. In 1999, top salaries at the 10 largest environmental groups averaged $235,918, according to IRS tax forms. By contrast, the president of Habitat for Humanity, International -- which builds homes for the poor -- earned $62,843. At Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the president made $69,570.
Among environmental groups, Ducks Unlimited paid its leader the most: $346,882.
"Those salaries are obscene," said Martin Litton, a former Sierra Club board member, who worked tirelessly over a half-century to help bring about the creation of Redwoods National Park in 1968 and Sequoia National Monument last year. Litton did it for free.
"There should be sacrifice in serving the environment," he said.
One large payment occurred in 1997 when the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) fired its president, Paul Pritchard, in a dispute over management style and direction. It awarded him $760,335 to settle his contract -- the equivalent of more than 50,000 individual $15 donations.
Thomas Kiernan, the group's current president, dismissed the incident as "3-year-old history" and called it "profoundly irrelevant."
"NPCA made an offer. We countered. It was just like every other negotiation," said Pritchard, now president of the National Park Trust, another parks-based group in Washington. "I'm proud of what I did at NPCA."
Others have a different view. "I told Paul that I thought his salary and benefits had become egregious," said former board member Runte.
Speaking of the environmental movement as a whole, Runte said: "The larger problem is the disease of money. In truth, what the environmental community has become is a money machine ... We have come to the point where we keep score by the almighty dollar. And we need to start keeping score by the health of the planet."
The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.