“Grassroots” Environmental Groups and the Role of the Public

I’d like to start a discussion based on some ideas in Doug Bevington’s 2009 book, “The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear.” If others don’t think his statements are an accurate depiction of how things currently are, nor of history, I think that would also be of interest.

In this book, Bevington contrasts national environmental organizations and their “insider” strategies with what Bevington calls “grassroots biodiversity groups” and their “outsider” strategies. Let me quote from the book p 36.

“As grassroots activists started doing litigation to protect forests and endangered species, they created new organizations as vehicles for the lawsuits. The new groups were initially very small with few members other than the activists directly involved in the group’s work. The activists described their new organizations as “grassroots” to distinguish themselves from the nationals. In the context of other social movements, the term is often associated with mass participation, but this was not the case for most grassroots biodiversity groups. They found that a small handful of determined activists could achieve significant environmental protection through litigation without having to engage in a broad mobilization of the public.”

And why did they not need public support? Because they were funded by foundations.
“The influx of new environmental grantmakers brought in increased opportunities for funding alternative approaches within the environmental movement (p. 37)…” and ” in my interviews with grassroots biodiversity activists a few of the newer environmental grantmakers were frequently mentioned as providing crucial early support for their groups.”

Note: the actual definition of grass roots from Merriam Webster is 1: the very foundation or source
2: the basic level of society or of an organization especially as viewed in relation to higher or more centralized positions of power.

In that sense,  the use of the term “grass roots” by Bevington  is comparing them to national environmental groups and not necessarily to local environmental or other groups. It would probably be better to use another term for these groups, but it is convenient to use this term to discuss his book.

The most direct interpretation of their strategy appears to be that public support can be bypassed if funding is available to pursue one’s goals through litigation. And it might appear to local people impacted by these lawsuits that non-local philanthropists and activists may ultimately determine policies through closed-door settlements of litigation. Which may be part of what is behind the desire to limit “appeals and litigation”- to favor open processes where local people and governments can weigh in on policies that directly affect them.

When seen through the lens of social justice, it appears that choosing litigation as a strategy may favor national interests, and those wealthy enough to be philanthropists, at the expense of the local interests and the working class. At least this lens needs to be carefully considered, in my opinion.

One way to increase trust with local people and governments would be to make transparent the source of funding for these groups, and specifically, from whom each grant is received. Then those who disagree with the legal proceedings of a group could deal directly with the granting foundation. Another way would be to open all settlement discussions to the public. It seems that if transparency is thought to be a good thing for government, it should be equally a good thing for other ways of developing public policy.

32 thoughts on ““Grassroots” Environmental Groups and the Role of the Public”

  1. A book of this scope necessarily makes certain broad generalizations. Your insight that Bevington stretches the term “grassroots” in applying it to the national groups that are the focus of his study is spot on–this conflation should have been avoided, perhaps with an alternative term such as DeLuca’s “postmodern environmental groups” or some other term that captures this new heteroglossic spin on “grassroots.”

    Nonetheless, I find Bevington gets it right with respect to groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and his explanation of how groups such as CBD morphed out of earlier “outsider strategy” groups such as Greenpeace is also sound. Bevington’s experience as an activist with CBD, Greenpeace, and other groups gave him a tremendous advantage that many environmental studies academics lack. But this great advantage is also something of a blind spot, as he does not “see” the role of groups such as Western Watersheds that don’t fit neatly into his categories of establishment groups (Sierra Club), outsider strategy groups, or foundation-funded grassroots groups.

    I find that Bevington’s greatest feat is having produced an excellent historical account of the CBD. For scholars it provides an excellent case study for better understanding the contemporary environmental movement, and for activists it provides an excellent model full of practical lessons.

    • Thanks for your comment. Could you further articulate how you see Western Watersheds? all I know about them is that they don’t seem to like grazing (as Andy says, one of the multiple uses equal to recreation) and they do use appeals and litigation. Are they not foundation-funded?

  2. Sharon, you said, “One way to increase trust with local people and governments would be to make transparent the source of funding for these groups, and specifically, from whom each grant is received.”

    Are you aware that this transparency already exists? Have you ever heard of the 990 tax form, which every single non-profit 501c3 organization in America (regardless of their mission, goals, focus, etc) is required to file annually? These documents are public and readily available on-line. I’d suggest you consult this website: http://www2.guidestar.org.

    Are you also aware, that by law, every single non-profit 501c3 organization in America must make a copy of their 990 tax form available to anyone who make a specific request?

    Given these facts, I have to say that I believe your inferred accusation concerning a supposed lack of “transparency” concerning environmental NGO funding doesn’t hold water. Thanks.

    • Matthew- I was aware, as I have fiscal responsibilities in two (one music and one spirituality) 501c3’s. My point was, as Smokey says above, I am curious as to what foundations support them, and where they get their funding.

      And I would like to take this opportunity to give Center for Biological Diversity a big shout-out for having theirs on-line and relatively easy to find. It would be interesting to know which “legal settlements” produced, in their case, $1,173,517 of income.

      So I would say in addition to what is required to be reported, it would be nice to have 1) which foundations contributed and 2) which settlements were responsible for the income.

      To clarify my recommendations, I italicized them in the original post.

    • I’m looking at the 2007, 08 and 09 990’s for our organization and each of them clearly lists the amount of our foundation grants and where the foundation is located. This is under “Schedule of Contributors.” Perhaps we do our tax forms differently? I’m honestly not sure, just positive this info is on ours. Thanks.

  3. Litigation is rarely an effective strategy if the government is following the law. If the government isn’t following the law, who cares who finances the lawsuit? Thank goodness someone is.

    • Andy- Thanks for your comment. Someone made a comment similar to yours on a settlement call I was on. I would like to have had the discussion in greater depth at that time, but by the time I added up the costs of all the OGC, DOJ, and DOI lawyers on the call, my taxpayer conscience wouldn’t allow it. This is worthy of another post and ongoing discussion.

    • Andy Stahl :
      If the government isn’t following the law, who cares who finances the lawsuit? Thank goodness someone is.

      Because the “someone” funding the lawsuit may be using the lawsuit to change policy?

      • Brian,

        What is the law if not an expression of public policy?

        There are occasions where law-breaking becomes de facto agency policy, e.g., Pacific Northwest over-cutting that endangered the spotted owl and other critters. The spotted owl plaintiffs were certainly trying to change these long-standing illegal practices. But the wisdom of the underlying public policies themselves (e.g., conserve threatened species, protect biodiversity, disclose environmental risks) were not at issue — they are required by the laws that were enforced in court.

        Do a plaintiff’s motives matter when public laws are successfully enforced? Or is it sufficient to say that following the law is a good thing and breaking the law is a bad thing.

      • I dunno, Andy.

        Maybe I’m up in the night, as they say around here, but I’m resident of a western state that gave the Federal Gov. permission to retain and manage a third (or so) of the state in exchange for commitments to manage it under a certain policy. If you wanted to change that policy via litigation, I kind of want to know who’s paying you to do that.

        Am I up in the night? You tell me…

      • Brian – Your state didn’t give the federal government permission to retain federal land. Western land was purchased or conquered by the federal government. Congress created the western states, subject to terms and conditions imposed by Congress and accepted by majority vote of the residents of each state. The U.S. Constitution vests in Congress all authority for the management of federal land.

        I’m not sure what “certain policy” you believe Congress is supposed to have promised your western state. In most western states, Congress granted to states sections 16 and 36 in each township to finance public schools. Congress also barred states from taxing federal land or interfering with the disposal of federal land. Until their comprehensive repeal in the 1970s, Congress disposed of federal land in western states under the various federal (not state) homesteading acts.

  4. Matt,

    For some reason, schedule “B” which is the “schedule of contributors” is not provided at the site you listed. So in turn, the general public can’t see what organization or individuals gave your organization money in any of thoes years. Now I’m sure you have to submit them, but they are not readily avalible to the public like you state.

  5. Smokey, perhaps it’s not listed on that guidestar site, but that doesn’t mean it’s not ‘readily available’ just because it’s not on that one site. Again, all 501c3 organization’s in the US are required to provide a copy of their 990 upon request. Given this fact, this seems to met the “readily available” test in my book. I mean, what’s so hard about making a phone call or a request in writing?

    I’m not even sure why we’re having this conversation, except that this continues Sharon’s apparent paranoia of the boogieman, er I mean environmental groups, and the notion that every time the Forest Service farts an enviro lawsuit is dropped. That’s just, like, so mid-1990’s people. Get over it and move on.

    Hey, and while we’re at it, can we please talk about the lack of transparency with the finances of the timber industry? I mean, if the timber industry is going to greatly impact public policy by always calling for more logging on public lands (usually with the excuse that they will go out of business if we don’t do more logging) shouldn’t the public have a right to look at their finances? Just saying….

    • No, Matthew, I am not paranoid, just mildly annoyed when I think there are better ways to resolve policy disputes IN SOME CASES with lower costs to the conservation community and to the feds (that we all pay for in taxes). I’d like to talk about what situations those might be.

      Your “finances of the timber industry” comment is fairly irrelevant in my state, since the only mill of any size is in receivership.

  6. Smokey and Matthew,

    501(c)(3)’s are not required to disclose publicly their donors/members. Some voluntarily do (e.g., High Country News commits several pages of its magazine to thank donors regularly). Many don’t.

    In its seminal 1958 case, NAACP v. Alabama ex. Rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449 (1958), the U.S. Supreme Court said that the right to privately associate free from government intrusion is protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment. Here’s a nice essay commemorating this decision’s 50th anniversary.

    FSEEE does not disclose its member/donor list. We respect our members’ privacy and can imagine no compelling reason that their choice to join FSEEE should be known to any government agency, official, or the general public.

    • O.K. so I am definitely not the Supreme Court- but to me there is a difference to me between an organization, and an individual. I am not interested in which individuals contribute to groups, but would be interested in which foundations (organizations) contribute to groups.

      It seems to me that organizations that attempt to influence public policy through litigation should be held to the same standards as lobbying organizations, or political action organizations. Unfortunately, I don’t know what those standards are.

  7. Great point Matthew…I would totally encourage more transparency with the financials of the Forest Service or other public land management agencies. I’m sure we could get them, like you said, by a simple letter or phone call but I can only imagine the hassel. I mean it’s hard enough to find out what roads are open and closed with the forest service let only accounting information.

    Montana does ok…but as with anything, could be better.


    • Thanks for pointing out the legal requirements. I guess we’ve been over-transparent all these years by listing foundation in our 990. We don’t list the names of individual donors.

      Smokey, I was talking about the finances of actual timber companies, not $$ info for the Forest Service or BLM. File a FOIA if you want more complete info from the government, (http://www.justice.gov/oip/foiacontacts.htm)

      I’ve always found it rather odd that we take for granted that, for example, a mill owner is being completely honest or up-front when they reference their financial situation to advocate for more public lands logging or getting tax breaks or forms of mini-bail outs in terms of loans, etc. If we’ve going to be offering up public lands or public tax dollars to private corporations perhaps there should be greater transparency into their financials.

      Again, given the context of our country’s tremendous financial crisis – caused by over-consumption, over-development, lack of regulation and over-sight (not by environmentalists) – I just continue to find it interesting how some people are seriously worried about some justifiable legal action to protect endangered species or prevent a roadless area or old-growth forest on public lands from being logged and that an organization might get a $10,000 grant or recover some fees via EAJA. Talk about not seeing the big picture while chasing imaginary demons.

      • Matthew,

        I would equally argue that in my value system, a fuel treatment of 600 acres or 78 acres in roadless next to a road, would not be worth going to court about, when you could actually buy land and do whatever you wanted to do or not do, for potentially the same amount of money you spend in legal fees- without the certainty of who is going to win in court. Interesting grad student project- for fuels treatment projects-” litigation costs per acre treated” comparisons across a variety of different projects and parts of the country to compare with cost of private land per acre.

      • I want to know how much of my tax dollars goes to subsidizing excessive NEPA analysis to “lawsuit proof” timber projects. I don’t mean “direct litigation” costs, I mean the price that’s tagged on to every sale,whether it gets litigated or not.

        On forests that aren’t litigated- NEPA analysis appears to be much less. Let’s compare an Environmental assesment (EA) in Colorado with an EA in Montana. I call it “acres harvested per page”. Both are MPB salvage sales. WE can’t blame the Excess in Montana on Endangered species.The nearsest Grizzly bear to the one in Montana is 100 miles.

        Here’s a link to the “Little Snake” sale in Colorado. It salvage logs 4500 acres and runs to 68 pages.
        Heres a link to the “North Butte Salvage” sale on the Beaverhead Deerlodge Nat. Forest in Montana. It runs to 160 pages to log 400 acres! I don’t count “appendices” in my comparisons. But there were 100 pages in the “response to comments” appendices in Montana.

        I realize it’s difficult to compare apples to apples.But glance at the Colorado EA. It’s skimpier than a Montana DNRC MEPA analysis. If you want to talk about “collaborations Martin, perhaps you should contact “Colorado Wild” and ask them why they stopped timber sale litigation and started to collaborate on the front end instead of the back.

  8. I haven’t read the book yet Sharon. But I’m anxious to start. I’ve read a few good accounts of the Center for Biological Diversity, check out for example work done by political scientists Chris Kylza and David Sousa. An excellent account of using the ESA as a “tool for institutional disruption” and as a “legal battering ram.” I think some of that writing found its way into their recent book: http://www.amazon.com/American-Environmental-Policy-1990-2006-Comparative/dp/0262612208/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1291322080&sr=8-1

    This comment doesn’t follow the transparency thread, but…any fair account of CBD and its use of the courts should emphasize just how often implementation of the ESA (among other laws) does not happen without litigation. That’s an important part of the story right? Take, for example, the few number of species listed during the Bush Administration that were not in response to a court order or petition. If I recall correctly, I’m not sure there was an administrative-initiated listing during his first term.

    How do you suppose the ESA would work without its citizen suit provision and without outsider enforcement?

    • Martin,
      What if the motivation of the “grassroots” group wasn’t related to the specific endangered species, or its recovery, but actually to livestock grazing, or another use or policy they disagreed with?

      • It depends. I try not to answer such questions without knowing more about the facts of each case.

        But, it isn’t necessarily a problem when groups use the ESA to effect changes in land management. After all, the stated purpose of the ESA is “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.”

        And unrelated, why does industry use of litigation not get nearly as much attention in the context of the ESA? I bet a majority of the active ESA cases right now, or in the recent past, are industry-based challenges trying to undo critical habitat designations.

    • It seems to me that we do annual reviews with FWS of how we are following through on ESA regulatory requirements. It might be more effective to involve the public in these reviews- to get people talking about what works and what doesn’t to protect species.. particularly with trips to the field to review. Then we’d all have our joint creative energies working together- and yes, if something were seriously not working, then it would be clear when litigation would be the only effective way to support change, when other ways had tried and failed.

  9. Well, you and I are never going to agree on most of this, and I was probably a bit more snarky than I needed to be in my post. If apologies are needed, please accept, and allow me a “do over.”

    I was referring most directly to the passage of FLPMA, the policy it mandated for BLM lands, and the way “grassroots” groups have attempted to change the policy via litigation.

    I suppose I need to give a disclaimer that my example here does not 100% apply to our discussions about USFS lands. I do maintain the key points I will make about litigation changing policy, and the rights of citizens to know who is paying the bills for that, applies to the UFSF and NFMA.

    From my perspective, FLPMA (and could it be argued NFMA??) was a bargain. Western states chose not to oppose the change in policy from “disposal” of public lands to “retention and management” — in exchange for certain guarantees.

    Again, from my perspective, FLPMA embodies those guarantees in four pillars:
    1. Multiple use / Sustained Yield
    2. Grandfathered valid existing rights
    3. Consistency of federal plans with those of state and local governments
    4. A limit on agency’s ability to designate Wilderness Study Areas

    That is what I meant by:

    Brian Hawthorne :
    I’m resident of a western state that gave the Federal Gov. permission to retain and manage a third (or so) of the state in exchange for commitments to manage it under a certain policy.

    Over the years, I’ve witnessed “grassroots” groups attempt to chip away at those four pillars via litigation and I want to know who is paying them to do it.

    Ditto for USFS and NFMA. If a “grassroots” group is using litigation to change the policy, I want to know who is paying the bill.

    Up in the night, I know… Still, I want to know!

    • Brian,

      If the grassroots group is successful in its litigation, then more likely than not, you are paying their costs. The Equal Access to Justice Act requires Executive Branch agencies to pay successful plaintiff’s cost of litigation where the government’s position was not substantially justified.

  10. I fail to understand why litigation or any part of it (such as settlement negotiations) is considered “making policy” such that the litigants should be required to disclose their funding sources. I have filed litigation on over 450 Forest Service and other federal land management agency projects in the past 20 years, and I NEVER once filed a case to “change policy.” Every case I ever filed was for one purpose: to enforce the law as written.

    When I wanted to change policy, I got involved in the congressional and regulatory processes for that, such as lobbying Congress for a change in the law or being involved in rule making for an agency to change its regulatory policy under the law. I know a few people who did claim to file lawsuits “to change policy,” but I never saw any of them succeed. Sure, litigation can affect policy, such as the 1970s Monongahela case leading to the passage of NFMA, but the case itself did not change policy. The case did not create the terms of NFMA; the lawsuit enforced the law as then written.

    Do not confuse what an agency does with policy. If an agency breaks the law regularly, then that is not its policy; it is its habit. A lawsuit that succeeds in making the agency stop breaking the law does not create or change policy for that agency.

    One reason I get involved in collaborative processes so much is that such processes are the best way for me to change policy, by getting lots of people from different perspectives to work on that change. But I would never be in such collaborative processes without my litigation history. No one gave me the time of day or listened to any of my ideas for better ways of doing things (i.e., changes to policy AND habit) until I won some lawsuits. Without litigation, there can NEVER be collaborative, cooperative conservation. Cooperation only works when the participants have roughly equal power, or enough power to make the other participants wary of proceeding without them.

    No industry or government agency was going to give an environmentalist like me a voice and a piece of the decision-making power if I could not effect change to their habits of breaking the law. What is interesting now in many places is how some environmental groups are acting more like the timber industry of 1970. The groups now have more power and thus become reluctant to compromise or engage in collaboration. The biggest obstacle I see now to effective cooperative conservation is big, well-funded environmental groups. If there is an argument for seeing the sources of their funding, it is not because of their use of litigation; few of them do much litigation any more. Small, local, poorly-funded groups file MUCH more litigation than the big enviro groups in DC and San Fran. The big groups spend lots of time and vast sums of money lobbying, often in violation of IRS regulations, but none have been caught yet. THAT is what should be a driver of more transparency in funding, not use of litigation.

    • If it’s true as Ray says that the big green groups are not litigating much and unwilling to collaborate, what I wonder what they are doing?

  11. Ray- thank you so much for your post. You have given me a lot to think about and I will post after some more thought and research.

    With regard to what you said

    What is interesting now in many places is how some environmental groups are acting more like the timber industry of 1970. The groups now have more power and thus become reluctant to compromise or engage in collaboration. The biggest obstacle I see now to effective cooperative conservation is big, well-funded environmental groups.

    This statement is very similar to onemade within the past two weeks or so by one of my current colleagues. Given where you are located and the kind of work you do, and where we are located and the kind of work we do, that we would share these observations is interesting, at least to me.

    Perhaps we can observe some of this behavior in real time and discuss it on this blog.


Leave a Comment