ENVIRONMENTALISM is in a crisis—one that far transcends the hostility of an oil-soaked White House.
How it got here was on display last week in Klamath Falls, a town of 17,000 in the semiarid high desert of south central Oregon. There, some 20,000 angry farmers, right-wing gov'mint haters, and their allies rallied to demand that the federal government allow area farms, decimated this year by a severe drought, to receive the irrigation water they normally rely upon. All summer, that water has been a contentious issue, because by law the government is required to save enough of it during the drought to allow the survival of endangered salmon, sucker fish, and various plants and migratory birds. It shouldn't be that hard for the Klamath Basin's farmers and concerned green groups to work together to demand financial support for farmers in time of drought, so that the cost of trying to save species doesn't fall disproportionately on people whose livelihood comes from the land.
Instead, enviros have set themselves up as the enemy by demanding that the federal government—whose irrigation projects made agriculture in the area possible in the first place—buy out the area's farmlands and permanently save the water for nature.
It's not the farmers' fault that they (or their families, or the people they bought the land from) took advantage of what our government offered them. So now the feds are supposed to yank that offer away? When has our government ever paid fair market value for property it wanted—let alone compensated for a lifetime's worth of emotional and monetary equity in a business or livelihood?
Progressives fiercely opposed the freeway and urban renewal projects of the '60s, when whole neighborhoods were often evicted for the sake of the "greater good." They fought not on the basis that freeways were bad but that ripping apart the neighborhoods was bad. More recently, labor activists have rightly scoffed at the idea that government "retraining," which may or may not ever happen, is an adequate replacement for the jobs corporations ship to the Third World.
In that context, protestations that the feds should buy up farmland "with generous payments, relocation funds, training funds, and community development funds" (as one activist put it) simply tell farmers that greens are as out of touch with how the real world works as farmers think they are. And, furthermore, that enviros do, in fact, care more about plants and animals than people.
We also heard this last month, when four Okanogan firefighters died while water that could have been used to fight their fire was instead kept in area streams to protect endangered salmon. We've heard it repeatedly—in timber wars, mining communities, depressed ranch lands and farmlands, and, more and more, over water.
When green advocates set themselves up for such charges, it does incalculable damage. Even when the stakes for the two sides (extinction vs. economic convenience) aren't remotely equivalent, few people think they're less important than a fish. As our population grows and sprawls, such conflicts are becoming much more frequent.
Personally, I'd kinda like to see nature take precedence over money for a change, but few politicians will make that call. The biggest crisis this country's environment faces is not in nature, but in the halls of power and in public opinion. Support for environmental laws and policies is dwindling rapidly among judges and legislators alike. When the House approved drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, it did so with the backing of labor—citing "job creation" in the Arctic!--and a number of pro-labor Democrats. (All that "Teamsters and Turtles" hooey from two years ago can now safely be buried.) No politician in Western Washington has come remotely close to proposing the type of sacrifice that would truly be necessary to save Puget Sound area salmon from extinction, never mind restore them. Nowhere in the entire U.S. political system is there any base of advocacy for environmental concerns. Quite the opposite; the key decisions ultimately lie entirely in the hands of two parties, neither one of which contains many environmental champions. In order to save (let alone expand) our environmental protections, the public will have to demand it. Loudly.
Conflicts like Klamath must be approached with that political reality in mind. That, in turn, requires finding common ground where it's readily available. In Klamath, it is: financial support for the farmers in time of drought. Instead, an angry demonstration like the one in Klamath Falls helps provide the cover for our current bipartisan, corporate-friendly attack on environmental protections.
Until environmentalists start caring about and making common cause with the people who would be displaced by environmental protection, inevitably the salmon, the sucker fish, and all the rest of the natural world will lose.