Activism/Education; a False Dichotomy for Chapters?

by Jim Britell, Conservation Chair, Kalmiopsis Audubon Society

Summary:  Can Audubon Chapters best protect the environment through nurturing, educationally based "constructive engagement" strategies or is confrontation and litigation more effective. Differences and relative effectiveness of the two approaches. Posted to an Audubon list 07/00.

Note: This essay was posted to an email list for Audubon Chapters as a rebuttal to a chapter officer who had argued in an earlier post that education is a better strategy than confrontation for chapters to bring about long term environmental improvements in their communities.

Audubon Friends,

Steve said:

"Confrontational activities may work for Greenpeace, Earth First or the Sierra Club but the vast majority of Audubon members want a more subtle approach to environmental concerns. They believe in educating people and children and fostering the nurturing attitude required to 'save our planet'."

and also:

"They want to do constructive, educational projects in their communities relating to birds,habitat and our natural world. When it comes to actually standing up for the environment in the face of opposition at the local level, our chapter at least, acquiesces."

Oh, dear, I think that Steve's chapter has things completely upside down and backwards. I feel so sorry for them. They are missing out on so much. But I am glad he wrote it because it brings this issue out in the open. I guess I want to respond because we are thought of by many to be a confrontational "take no prisoners" chapter and have always been involved in hard core activism since we were founded.

Our chapter activists and board are mostly grandparents, retired managers and teachers and older codgers. (I am a retired federal manager.) Several of our recent presidents took office as President after they were 80 years old. We all own our own homes and are active in our community . You will find no dread locks or hippies among us, and none of us have ever participated in a demonstration or chained ourselves to a tree, nor have we ever had to (knock on wood). We have good manners and are good neighbors, and a number of us are elected to public office and serve on public boards and commissions, and we do not consider ourselves in the least as "radicals". But there has NEVER EVER been a time during the last 12 years I have been president of/or conservation chair when we did not have at least one active appeal of some kind in progress.

So let's just walk this through with an example or two.

If someone is on a bulldozer and illegally filling a wetland - perhaps in ignorance or as a scofflaw, our chapter would consider that illegal fill VERY confrontational to us - and to the environment. And we would of course call the feds, the state or the county sheriff to get them to order that bulldozer to stop, but we would not consider our action as being the least bit confrontational. Any more than if our neighbor's house was being broken into and we called the police. And just as certainly as we would call the police on a break-in of our neighbor, we would call the police if our own house was being broken into, or if someone was illegally operating a bulldozer in our own back yard. Well, to us, public land, and federal forests and the water of the state (like wetlands) is simply another form of our own personal property. So when we act to protect it, we are doing nothing more or less than protecting our own personal property.

Greenpeace, will not usually become involved in our local issues, they are involved in big picture stuff. Although a few years ago we did work with them to stop ocean mineral mining exploration off our coast (strip mining the ocean floor) and Greenpeace brought the Rainbow Warrior and did a "direct action" in cooperation with our local fishermen. They all got arrested and had a lot of fun - and they did win - 100%.

As far as Earth First!, I think they are mostly into doing "demos" to memorialize defeats. We would never depend on them to help us with a local problem or to stop local habitat destruction. Besides I don't even know if we even have any EF! people within several hours driving time of the many thousands of square miles of land for which our chapter is the only local environmental group. I think they are mostly urban folks and we are very rural. Once I was invited to an EF rally to give a talk to a group of them, and while there noticed that when you passed them on a trail, they generally did not make eye contact with you. So I assumed they were all city folks. Rural folks will always make eye contact and say hello. So other groups are not an option for us at all. It is not a question of us doing it or some one else will, if we don't act, no one will.

But lets take the example a step further. Say someone wants to build condos or a housing development on a parcel of land now zoned just for forest grazing purposes and he goes to the county to get the land rezoned. We would of course go to the planning department or the state or county and file an appeal against that request. Our Audubon chapter has filed such appeals/interventions perhaps 100 times in the last ten years. And we are winning about 80% of them. We always try to have one person just to monitor land use issues. But we do not consider these appeals the least bit confrontational on our part. These legal actions are not confrontations, they are just our effort to keep our community nice and from being overrun with mindless sprawl and shopping centers.

Here is a third example. In our Audubon service area - our county, we have maybe a half million acres of Federal Forests and a couple of hundred thousand acres of old growth which has never been logged. So say we have a stand of old growth trees that has stood for thousands of years and some timber company wants to clear cut it. Of course we would file an appeal or go to court to stop such a ridiculous and harmful thing. We have successfully stopped many, many, many, dozens of timber sales that, absent our chapter, would have been cut down by now. But, because of our chapter, they are still standing. In our view in these appeals and law suits, we STOPPED aggressive, destructive radical and highly confrontational behavior - we certainly did not engage in it.

If one is helping the agencies enforce our laws and helping make sure that our neighbors observe what our state and federal laws require of them, then just because the other side screams (and they sometimes do) does not mean that WE were being confrontational. It means we are being effective.

If you firmly resist lawbreakers and bullies and insist on our laws being enforced - this sort of activity should never be called confrontational. But even if it was - so what. Yes, occasionally people will threaten you, it happens, but we have never had anyone actually hurt.

Well what DO we consider as confrontational? We would consider it as HIGHLY confrontational, radical and unacceptable if one of our Audubon members ever tried to get us to take a "hands off" position on an important environmental issue. That would be totally unacceptable behavior and we have generally asked people who do this to leave our board. in fact, if anyone on our board or in our membership ever suggested that in a issue where habitat was threatened, our chapter should not go to the mat to stop it, such a position would be incomprehensible to us.

Once a staff member from the California State office of Audubon came to town and tried to get us to "get along with people " better. So of course we just gently but firmly ran him out of town.

People who will not stand up and be counted when innocent defenseless bird habitat is being destroyed generally don't take this view because they want to avoid confrontation, they are just putting up a smoke screen to cover up the fact they are cowardly persons. We avoid being around these kinds of people, and you should too.

Of course we undertake a full complement of bird watching activities and have fun with the bird count, and prepare programs for bird walks and slide shows etc. Our chapter likes bird watching and bird counting and all that. There is just no conflict between one and the other.

Some practical suggestions:

When a member insists on non-confrontational approaches, go directly to the county clerk's office to see what their real estate interests are. Occasionally we get a ringer who slips in with a pro-development agenda but their real estate holdings and financial entanglements should show up in county records. In fact whenever you get into local fight it is always a good idea to check the county records to make sure that none of your "allies" are really on the other side.

If that is not the problem, and some member is really objecting to an activist program, and has no personal conflict of interest, then here is generally what is really going on. A member may say they do not want you to go up against developers or file appeals or become activists because that is too confrontational - but I have noticed these same people have NO problem whatsoever, in fact they seem to enjoy, getting nasty, assertive, and aggressive against the other members who do want to be active. Paradoxically they are confrontational and personally nasty but only in their ostensible desire for the chapter not to be confrontational.

Why is this? When you see this behavior it always means that the person has no real problem with "in your face" confrontations at all, it is that he just does not want to engage in confrontations with those more powerful people than himself. He will get into confrontations and be rude to people (like board members) he considers weaker than himself but never those he fears as being stronger than himself. What you are really often dealing with is a bully - even if the demeanor is superficially all accommodation and reasonableness. In other words, some people just like to get very confrontational and in your face but just with people they think they can intimidate and you have just run into one.

So there are three main reasons for anti-activist agitation by certain board members, the person is: a coward; a bully; or has a financial interest in the issue.

You have to stand up to bullies inside and outside the chapter (and in life) and if you do, after a while, you will find that you do not need to get in a lot of fights with developers and land rapists any more. Merely telling them that you will go up against them is enough to stop them. What people say about us is once we decide to take on an issue, we never give up until we win.

Paradoxically whether in school yard, board meeting, the planning commission or in the national forest, standing up to bullies is the best way to avoid fights and confrontations. On the other hand, letting bullies in or out of the chapter have their way is a certain ticket to going through life ashamed of yourself for being a coward.

So Steve it sounds like you just need some strong grandmothers in your chapter. Your chapter probably just has too many wimpy white guys. There is nothing more dangerous or ferocious than a mother bear when her babies are threatened. We call our activist mothers "Mama Bears". They are so much tougher than us men.

Here is the best advice I have ever seen for people like us who have trust or fiduciary responsibilities. (In our case we have a fiduciary relationship for our poor defenseless bird and animal friends who cannot speak or write, and so have chosen Audubon folks to protect them from other mean humans.)

From a manual for bank regulators advising trust officers about their responsibilities.

"It is, of course disagreeable to take another person by the throat: But if a person undertakes to act as a trustee, he must face the necessity of doing disagreeable things when they become necessary in order to keep the estate intact. A trustee is not entitled to purchase a quiet life at the expense of the estate, or to act as good natured men sometimes do in their own affairs, in letting things slide and losing money, rather than create ill feelings."

I would like chapters who take an activist stand-up approach to identify yourselves to us. Maybe outside of Oregon there are just few of you, but we need to form an Audubon Chapter association for mutual aid and assistance society to give some support to these poor sad and pathetic Audubon chapters who are defeated and timid - and obviously run by a sorry lot of wimpy men. Can you let me know who you are? I am now drafting a sign on letter on activism issue to go to all of the chapters for you to consider signing onto to let NAS know exactly what we think.

A final thought: If you act with integrity and steadfastness and stand for principle then you will attract like minded people. Our chapter consists of law abiding people who are good neighbors and respected within their community. We have 1% of the total population of our service area as members, (50% are chapter only members), about 15% of the adults in our local town are members, and we have all the money we need to do whatever we want to do.

The future lies with activism and attracting the kids who have made Julia Butterfly their heroine...besides being in an activist Audubon Chapter and defeating bad guys regularly is a hell of a lot of fun (probably the second most fun thing you can possibly do.)

Audubonfully yours,


P.S. In the U.S., the tough guys always get the ground.

©2000 Jim Britell
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