Title: Vice President, Policy and Legislation
"I have learned a few important things in the dozen years I've spent in Washington. First, things are never as bad, or as good, as you think they will be."
It's post-election season in Washington D.C., when the entire town seems to engage in navel gazing exercises. Interest groups that came out ahead in the elections are making big plans for moving their agendas forward. Those that came up short meet to assess what is at risk and develop plans for defending their issues. November 5, 2002 has placed more of what I care about, our environment, at risk than any previous election. Weeks before election day, the Washington Post reported that lobbyists for big business and conservative interest groups were meeting with GOP leadership to lay the groundwork to take swift advantage of their hoped-for political situation. One conservative interest group participating declared that it was " the domestic equivalent of planning for post-war Iraq." In other words, they are planning to seek swift and fundamental changes to many federal laws and policies, including many that safeguard public health and the environment.
Unfortunately, such preparations did not turn out to be premature. The anti-environmental interests have begun to lay out their agenda in the press: weakening clean air, water, endangered species and forest protection laws in order to promote more energy development, mining and logging. In 2003, they will control nearly all of the Congressional committees that have jurisdiction over our air, water, forests and parks. Many of the federal departments and agencies that these committees oversee are themselves headed by former industry lobbyists that used to work for the very industries they now regulate.
However, while the polluters and extractive industries are undeniably in an enviable political position, I have learned a few important things in the dozen years I've spent in Washington. First, things are never as bad, or as good, as you think they will be. Second, if you get the word out, you typically find the American public is on our side when it comes to protecting the environment. And third, in Congress it is easier to stop things you don't like than to pass things you do. My seven years at Earthjustice has taught me a fourth as well—we'll see them in court.
I think what I like most about Earthjustice is that it works on behalf of the entire environmental movement. We have represented nearly every major national environmental group, as well as hundreds of regional, state and local groups, in court cases throughout the nation. To our lawyers it makes no difference whether you have a million members or just a handful. We have some incredibly talented litigators who would do very well in private practice but have forsaken those material rewards to serve many groups who would not otherwise have legal representation. When they win big environmental victories in court, the anti-environmental interests in DC often try to get Congress to overturn those court decisions through legislation. I enjoy the challenge of protecting our environmental victories and the laws upon which they are based.
When Laurie and I moved to Washington DC in mid-1990 it was a bit of a fluke. My second session working as the Sierra Club's Ozark Chapter lobbyist in the Missouri State Capitol had just concluded. Then Governor John Ashcroft (yes, the same one) had signed our top legislative priorities into law, a sweeping reform of Missouri's solid waste law and the addition of Taum Sauk Mountain (the state's tallest) to the State Park System. I had just been turned down for an environmental position in Alaska, and on a lark applied for a lobbyist slot at the Sierra Club's DC office to work on Global Warming and Energy. I told Laurie I was unlikely to get that job, as my experience and knowledge were in other environmental issues. However, we soon found ourselves driving two dogs, a cat, and our worldly possessions halfway across the country as well as planning a wedding in transit. We had traded seeing deer and wild turkey feeding in the neighbor's bean field adjacent to the old farmhouse we rented in rural Missouri for seeing lobbyists for the oil industry working the halls of Congress in $1,000 suits.
Congress declared war on Iraq and President Bush was calling for a national energy policy that had at its centerpiece the drilling of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sounds familiar. In November 1991 drilling proponents fell 10 votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster being mounted by Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN), Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Dick Bryan (D-NV). That vote will always mean something special. No one thought we could do it, not going up against a President with a 90 percent approval rating and the powerful Chairman of the Senate Energy Natural Resources Committee, J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA). But the environmental community came together as one and the public was on our side.
At Earthjustice, I got to replay that fight again. Last year, President George W. Bush fell 14 votes short of what he needed to drill the Arctic. He will make another run at it in 2003, but there are thousands of Arctic activists ready to fight to save this special place yet again. Besides overseeing a talented and dedicated group of lobbyists, I also lobby forest issues for Earthjustice. This has allowed me to work to save the place that I like to tell people turned me into an environmentalist.
More than twenty years ago I arrived in Petersburg, Alaska, to take a job in fisheries management with the U.S. Forest Service. I was fresh from college and had never beheld, or even imagined, a land so bold and full of life as what I witnessed in the Tongass rainforest. Great snow-capped mountains cascading down through primeval forests inhabited by giant Sitka spruce, and hemlock towering over a lush floor of moss and ferns. It was with no small sense of wonder that I spent the summer surveying wild, free-flowing rivers and creeks teaming with cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden char, and pink, sockeye, chum and silver salmon. For a kid who learned to love the outdoors at the end of a fishing rod, I reasoned that the Tongass must be what awaits all honest anglers in the ever after.
Unfortunately, besides witnessing the glory of truly untrammeled wilderness, I also saw the hand of man, or rather of his machines. Mountainsides, formerly inhabited by giants, lay bare. These denuded slopes, in turn, deposited their loads of silt, soil and debris in the streams below. Where once brown bears and Sitka black-tailed deer rested in dark, sheltered woods, now neither man nor beast could travel without great effort. The clearcut that was formerly a forest looked most like the aftermath of a great explosion, a shattering of life and limb.
The next year I listened intently to Alaska Public Radio as it broadcast the floor debate surrounding President Carter's conservation legacy, the Alaska Lands Act. By the end of that year, 1980, the nation saw this landmark conservation measure become law. By that time too, one budding biologist, schooled in multiple and wise use, had also been changed forever by the power of this great and ancient forest—and I am still entranced by its power and the opportunity to protect it and many other wild places across the nation.