Facing a hostile administration and a media fixated on war, environmental advocates are finding it hard to get heard. By Douglas Quenqua.Environmental groups could be forgiven for feeling they've been caught in a time warp lately. On a host of issues, the deeply conservative, aggressively pro-business Bush administration is challenging long-sacrosanct environmental dogmas that harken back to the days when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was still in its first few printings. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Environmental Defense say they're revisiting battles they thought they'd won in the days before Elvis left the building, when bell bottoms and paisley shirts were all the rage. After a decade in which it realized growing popular recognition and a string of hard-fought political wins, the environmental movement finds itself faced with an administration hostile to its agenda and suspicious of its science. "Every week, this administration does something different to undermine environmental safeguards," says Allen Mattison, media relations director for the Sierra Club. "One week it's drinking water, and the next it might be toxic waste sites. Our job is to rally the public behind protecting the safeguards people have come to rely on over the last 30 years." To make matters worse for environmentalists, clean air is hardly the first thing on any American's mind these days, what with a bear economy mauling Wall Street, an ethics crisis raging in the boardroom, the war against terrorism far from won, and the prospect of attacking Iraq on the horizon. Think The Washington Post is going to have room to write about the arcanum of arsenic laws once the bombs begin to fall on Baghdad? Is there room in the news? Despite these challenges, green PR pros say they're finding plenty of reporters hungry to report on environmental policy. "A lot of reporters frankly are shocked at the aggressive dismantling of some of our key environmental laws at the executive level," says Brian Smith, press secretary for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that liaises with legislators on environmental issues. Because of the intangible nature of many environmental problems, putting a human face on them is key. Mattison says his group has earned plenty of coverage by showing the real-life impact of environmental negligence. "When you can tie it to individual families that suffer consequences, that really brings it home," says Mattison. "When a local TV crew can see a toxic waste site seeping into drinking water and see families affected, it becomes real for them." But media interest is only a means to an end; the desired effect is public outrage, the activist PR pro's greatest weapon. If you can't ignite that, you can't bring about change in Washington. And since the public's outrage is being heavily taxed these days, there's only so much to go around. Few are likely to care about the level of arsenic in the water after hearing on CNN that their entire water supply is a target for smallpox contamination by terrorists. And activists say the public's tolerance for bad news about the environment isn't particularly high to begin with. In that way, the administration's onslaught of environmental policy shifts has an ironic deadening effect - the more headlines devoted to environmental policy wrangling, the less people want to hear about it. "We've almost gotten to the point where people are a bit shell-shocked by the attacks on the environment," says Smith. "It's hard to keep people's spirits up. We desperately search for positive stories to tell people, but it's mostly been bad news over the past two years." And even when they do have good news to report - or bad news for that matter - the predominance of war and terrorism over the news agenda prevents it from getting to the public, at least with the kind of repetition you need for it to really hit home. "Even if you can get a story run or some kind of coverage of a particular concern, it has a very short life," claims Steve Cochran, director of strategic communications at Environmental Defense. "The ability to get on TV talk shows has been much diminished. It's a real problem for those of us who don't have substantial advertising budgets," meaning just about everyone in environmental PR. And Cochran gives voice to the greatest fear of environmentalists - that legislators will take advantage of the lack of public attention to pass or repeal laws that would never get past a vigilant citizenry. "The more nefarious question," he says, "is whether this administration actually attempts to use that situation to try and push issues that they know they might not be able to push when there was more focus on it? This administration has certainly showed some savvy about how communications works. At some level, you have to imagine they are taking advantage of the fact that it's easier to push things that are controversial when nobody's paying attention." Given the resistance at the federal level, and the inherent difficulty of engineering popular support on a national scale, Cochran's group is tweaking its strategy to focus more on individual states. "Since 1994, there have been aggressive activities under way at the federal level to change the nature of implementation of environmental laws," he says. "So we've spent a lot of time messaging and lobbying at the state level." Act locally Local press and local concerns, says Cochran, are less dominated by talk of terrorism and war, and local legislatures in some states still contain enough liberal votes to make coalition building worthwhile. "Most recently we were involved in California, where there's an opportunity to pass a bill that begins to require the reduction of greenhouse gasses from vehicles." The steps may be smaller, but the rewards are greater, and states provide the opportunity to focus on progress as opposed to prevention. "We spend an awful lot of time [on the federal level] trying to stop bad things, where I prefer to be able to spend my time accomplishing good things." Although not all eco-advocates are turning their attention to the state level, all of the environmental groups interviewed for this article discussed their work in California - and with good reason. Not only is the state known for stringent environmental regulations, but it is increasingly a Democratic stronghold. "This is not an issue here," says Smith. "The Bush administration is not loved in California." But will its agenda play in Peoria? Polls show the electorate is concerned about environmental issues, but it seldom takes those concerns into the voting booth. What's more, Bush has enjoyed broad support ever since last year's terror attacks sent his poll ratings into the stratosphere. Awash in red, white and blue, the color of public sentiment has since been anything but green. Can the environmentalists tackle a popular president carried aloft on a surging wave of patriotism? Mattison dismisses the idea with a huff: "Nothing is more patriotic than the American landscape."
---------------------------- Countering government policy What the Bush administration has done to anger environmentalists, and what eco-advocates are doing to get the word out: Air pollution Challenge: In June, the administration proposed relaxing the enforcement of clean air rules regarding coal-fired power plants and refineries. The new proposals would make it impossible for the government to take legal action in all but the most egregious pollution cases, leaving it up to large corporate polluters to regulate themselves. Solution: Earthjustice teamed up with Public Campaign to produce a report showing which corporate polluters gave large donations to the Bush campaign and how they have benefited from the administration's environmental policies. Together they are launching GeorgeWBuy.com, a website listing alleged offenses. Deforestation Challenge: Bush took the opportunity presented by summer wildfires to personally propose massive "thinning" of deep American woodlands, a move that environmentalists say will bring mega-profits to the lumber industry while gutting America's landscape. Solution: Several environmental groups are countering with their own plan "to focus [government] resources and personnel on protecting people and homes first, rather than diverting assets far from communities." The plan has been widely distributed to editorial boards across the country and has received fair op-ed exposure. Endangered species Challenge: The Army Corps of Engineers has issued 12 permits to mining companies allowing for deep-pit limestone mining in Everglades National Park, potentially putting thousands of acres of rare habitat at risk. Solution: The National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the National Parks Conservation Association have filed a lawsuit in federal district court claiming the permits violate several federal laws, including the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.