Trends and Issues in Grassroots Forest Activism

by Jim Britell

Summary:   We need to organize to pass good legislation, not just stop the bad; networking is more than just proliferating email. Presently there is no accurate roster of grassroots groups - a proposal to inventory them.


There is a general consensus that the grassroots forest protection movement needs to implement new technology to improve our effectiveness. I am a full time volunteer grassroots forest activist but my earlier work was managing on-line networks of thousands of inter-linked computers.

This series of papers is an attempt to both encourage the movement to move forward networking the grassroots and surface some of the problems that will likely be encountered as this occurs. Sophisticated computer technology is a powerful tool which if used properly can extend one's power a hundredfold, but handled carelessly or poorly maintained can injure the user.

In many ways the forest protection movement in relation to its enemies is like the Polish army on the eve of World War II. Polish technology was perhaps 10% of the Germans and they tried to fight the German tanks that rolled over their country with horse cavalry, and of course were annihilated.

Today, the forest protection movement's ability to generate action in terms of letters, phone calls, and good media coverage is perhaps 10% that of right wing radicals. Our goal must be to catch up with and then surpass them.

We need the capability to defeat bad ideas, not just react to them; to develop the power to rollback bad legislation and secure higher levels of environmental protection than we had prior to the emergence of this anti-environmental congress. This paper discusses some of the issues to be considered as we develop a plan to do so.

Three Trends in Grassroots Activism

  1. Grassroots forest activism is in a major transition.

    In recent months, the entire nature of grassroots forest activism has changed dramatically. Until now, most activists perceived their job to be reviewing timber sale plans, finding legal and procedural problems with them, and appealing those with shortcomings. We won some and we lost some; but in general, the country seemed to be coming around to the idea that a lighter touch on the land was better.

    The other side has analyzed our strategy, gamed it and successfully countered it. Since radical "conservatives" took over the congress, many of the mechanisms we utilized to oppose illegal activities on public lands have been stripped away. If radical plans now underway succeed, the entire legal underpinning of the environmental movement will be abolished, and along with it the repertoire of activities that today constitute grassroots environmental action. Timber sales have been replaced with bogus forest health and salvage schemes wrapped in layers of judicial insulation. No amount of information, analysis or traditional forest activism can stop a timber sale conducted outside of judicial review. If conservatives have their way an era of judicial activism and legal brief writing may well be over. All environmental activists, not just forest activists, must go back to our historical roots of political organizing, public education and basic media work to rebuild the environmental movement from the ground up.

    Right-wing conservatives took over the congress by building an entire grassroots movement under our noses. The 1994 election was not an anomaly; it was the fruiting body of a vast network linking thousands of churches and reaching down even to local school boards. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. was the final product of years of organizing in thousands of black churches; so too, the Tauzins, Pombos, Dooleys and Cooleys are the products of a well organized, well funded national movement.

  2. The media is less friendly.

    At the same time public education must replace litigation as a major tool, forest activists are facing difficulty in getting our message out. The entire array of media is becoming less sympathetic to appeals from the environmental community. In the last few years many newspapers have removed capable environmental writers and replaced them with people who are more "balanced".

    Moreover, recent legislative developments are concentrating ownership of all forms of media into fewer hands, and those hands are no friends of ours.

    All the major TV networks have been acquired by trans-national corporations. Two major networks are in the hands of nuclear power companies: GE and Westinghouse. Rupert Murdoch, the father of tabloid journalism and the founder of a new right wing magazine, owns another (Fox). Disney, now buying ABC, is wedded to a corporate social agenda more worrisome than the other three corporados put together. Public television, especially in the West, has always been dominated by extractive industry, and is in some ways as bad as or even worse than private networks on natural resource issues.

    The corporations that have now taken over the major TV networks have demonstrated a unique genius for persuading the public that socially and environmentally degrading values and behavior are wholesome, inevitable and kind of fun. Collectively they created Reagan (GE), supermarket tabloids (Murdoch), the worldwide spread of plutonium (GE and Westinghouse), and our hatred of fire in forest ecosystems (Disney).

    The long term financial future of all four companies lies primarily with Asian markets and Asian financial interests, not American. The decisions they make will not be based on what is good for America, let alone what is good for our environment. American extractive industry is quite capable of putting soldiers on street corners in third world countries in order to protect their interests, but the companies buying our networks are experts in putting "soldiers" inside our minds, always the preferred approach in "democracies."

  3. Technological change is accelerating.

    Developments in technology now make it possible for a single organization to create a lobbying blitz that would have taken thousands to accomplish a few years ago. It was recently discovered that a single consultant had sent 500,000 faxes to members of Congress in support of a telecommunication bill and had fabricated 250,000 of them.

    In Oregon, a few people in the "wise-use" movement generated hundreds of phone calls by repeatedly calling in using different names. "Wise-use" organizers are skilled at fabricating volumes of mail and faxes to appear to have more support than they do. When emerging technology enables a single consultant to produce ten times the lobbying that the entire national environmental community can produce (we were proud to have generated 60,000 messages to congress about the 1995 rescission bill, one of the worst bills we have ever faced), it is time for us to revisit our basic strategy on alerts and responses.

    Recent developments on the Internet and the proliferation of ever more powerful computers may reshape the entire structure of the delivery of information and make it possible for computer networks to serve as private newspapers in the not too distant future. Radio and TV feeds off the Internet, soon to be commonplace, may allow the development of serious alternatives to corporate controlled media.

    Building a telecommunication base for activists now will prepare us for the more level playing field which may develop in the next few years, and may even help insure that it does develop. But powerful forces are opposed to developments that decrease the power of corporate media. The issues of "child pornography" and "copyright" are usually code words for schemes to cripple the Internet's ability to develop as a media alternative.

    So quite apart from the benefits to our activists of being on the Internet there are the benefits to the Internet of having our activists on it. The Internet needs all the activists it can get if it is not to fall under corporate control as have our other media outlets. Information activists seeking freedom for the Internet and environmental activists generally do not know of each other's existence; wiring up forest activists will have the effect of connecting these two groups with long term consequences for both movements.

Planning Issues

Our Objective
The grassroots movement has never had a formal mission statement so there is no document to which we can repair for advice and guidance. I would offer this as a mission statement for all efforts to increase grassroots telecommunication and technological capacity:

"To increase the ability of grassroots activists to preserve biological diversity by providing technology appropriate to the needs and capabilities of individual grassroots groups and activists."

By keying projects directly to the specific needs of grassroots groups we are unlikely to wander far from our objective. But If we view our task from a single technical vantage point, for example, increasing email connections; we risk detaching the goals of a particular project from the basic goals of the movement.

As an example, last year when canvassing grassroots groups to place computers, one group told me they did not want computers for ideological reasons. The technology they could use, they said, was a wood stove to keep their interns warm during the winter. If we had defined our goal simply as providing computers, if our purpose was centered on the tool, then we would have passed that group by. Instead, we gave them a wood stove.

Of course, for medium size regional groups the highest priority will often be email accounts, Internet access and intra-office computer networks, but for small groups whose territory may be large, whose members are disbursed and whose territory may encompass many local newspapers, the highest technology might be fax machines for press releases and alerts since email cannot easily send local press releases or provide alerts that can be easily photocopied and posted on bulletin boards in remote locations. One activist I know could only make photocopies by taking a document to the local hostile newspaper, handing it to the owner, who would take it in the back where who knows what was done with it. When that activist got a fax machine he used its copy function to make "photocopies" and solved a serious nagging problem.

Broadcast Fax and Email
To define the communication problems of the grassroots forest movement merely as how to extend email, as I fear some have, rather than to implement appropriate communication technology, is to misdefine the problem at the outset. Present use of email among the Northwest region's activists is probably only 10%. Use of email by organizations' members is most likely even less. While email theoretically is able to handle the rich text that make up alerts, it takes heroic technical measures to do so. Email is not yet ready for prime time except for the computer literate and so will be hard to implement for the thousands of novice computer users who make up much of the grassroots environmental movement.

If there is one area that has received insufficient emphasis, it is computer broadcast faxes as a critical tool for grassroots forest activists. Feeding newspapers with stories and letters, and the announcements of public meetings and events requires the preparation of press releases. A computer broadcast fax allows activists to quickly compose and release material to the media. Alerts and calls to action, with their oversized type and graphics, demand fax treatment. I do not think that easy communication of graphics by email will be with us soon; while computer fax is a mature technology able to be implemented now, is very secure, and the technical shortcomings of its earlier software have largely been solved.

One can place fax machines in the homes of the heads of telephone and letter trees much easier than one can place computers. In any case, the modems and software needed to create broadcast fax can also be used for email and Internet access so there is a natural technical progression from paper fax to computer broadcast fax, to email, Internet and the world wide web.

Certainly we need to build communication links between large groups, but action in the form of letters and calls to congress and letters to newspapers requires the construction of communication links inside grassroots groups. "Circuit riders" need to determine, in "over the kitchen table" talks, the communication needs of individual groups so technical support can be tailored on an individualized basis. To merely distribute more alerts when we do not and cannot respond to existing alerts would be pointless.

When we put our emphasis on the specialized needs of individual activists, a variety of solutions: fax machines, VCR technology, reducing voice telephone toll charges as well as email and Internet, begin to emerge.

Can the Grassroots be encouraged to Lobby More?
As we consider how to implement technology in the forest movement, we must keep in mind that advanced computer technology is no substitute for organizing ability. A 6000 member national environmental organization with computers and email accounts for its officers recently held a town hall with a member of congress; 14 people showed up. On the other hand, an 85 year old forest activist in a rural part of Oregon, using technology no more advanced than a typewriter, got 80 people to turn out for an important environmental meeting.

In my experience, unless the sky is truly falling and you have a piece of it in your hand, as with Arctic drilling or the rescission bill, If you want a local group to take real action, you must call and tell them what you want, then send them material.

Current efforts to coordinate and motivate grassroots groups to lobby on national bills and national issues are often ineffective. Too much emphasis is placed on the input (how many alerts are created) rather than the output (how many actual letters are generated).

90% of all the alerts and exhortations that flow to these groups are relegated to the trash can. If I complied with every alert I got over fax and email I would need a staff of three or four. Last week two activists told me they never read their email. Last night an activist said to be sure I send this article to her by fax as she has 3000 unread email messages.

Grassroots organizations, whether members of nationals or independents, only have a finite capitol in the bank with their federal and state officials, and they husband it carefully. If you want them to expend it making demands on their elected officials, they will need to see some good reason why it is in their self-interest to do so.

The primary focus, interest and concern of grassroots groups, both chapters of nationals and independents, is on the local issues which motivate and sustain their active members. Probably 98% of the energy of a grassroots organization will be expended on these local issues, but it is the credibility, experience and membership created by these activities that provide the experience, clout, and contacts to function effectively on national issues.

Paradoxically it is the national organizations and foundations whose interests are most intensely and exclusively focused on federal and national issues which will have the most payoff by strengthening grassroots groups at the local level. The grassroots network is an interlocking web and the medium of exchange is reciprocal help on local issues.

Nonprofit Activist Groups are Poorly Managed
In computer networks the sophistication of technical support and instruction required is inversely related to the management skills of the intended users. Grassroots groups generally lack the level of supervisory and management skills one encounters in profit making organizations. The business functions: mail management, personnel management, maintenance of photocopy machines etc., of most grassroots groups are in disarray. We probably could fund a good portion of the communication infrastructure of the movement with the postage wasted due to inefficiencies in our use of bulk mail and mailing lists.

In order to implement sophisticated networks of systems the quality of training materials and instruction will need to be of a higher order than for the normal "small business" to compensate for this lack of management skills. I think it will have to be of "breakthrough" quality.

(If anyone is interested in the subject of management problems in non-profits I can furnish a copy of a magazine article I wrote for the Whole Earth Review on this topic. Send a manila envelope with $1.00 postage.)

Connecting the Grassroots Presents Unique Security Problems
As we develop on-line systems security is a paramount concern, especially for activists whose activities have anything to do with mining or grazing. It is not unusual for an average activist to stop millions of dollars of economic activity each year so most serious activists get threats to encourage us to go away. In developing information to help us coordinate ourselves better we have to be sure we do not inadvertently construct hit lists that can be used to harass us. Complete paper trails and on-line records of activists and their projects and campaigns would be useful to would-be harassers. If activists begin to do more demonstrations and civil disobedience as is very likely (what else is left?) anger against us, inflamed by local newspapers, will probably grow and security will become even more important.

My chapter is pretty mainstream; we have not been involved with any sit ins or demonstrations and working relationships between activists and timber companies is pretty businesslike. Thankfully, the more virulent strain of the "wise-use" is not active in my neighborhood. But, In the last two weeks I have personally been involved in perhaps six situations where the potential for violence against local forest activists was present. And I received one pretty specific threat. Every time I come home from a trip, I look to see if my house is still there.

The Valdez incident showed that extractive industry is willing to employ private detectives to snoop into activists affairs. A whole newsletter, "PR Watch", is mostly devoted to reporting on illegal and surreptitious activities of public relations/detective organizations who infiltrate, spy on and disrupt environmental activist groups.

So, unfortunately, grassroots activists groups have security concerns not common to most networks. Security threats to networked business systems are usually passive, not active. (A thousand Mrs. Fields Cookies stores have no "sworn enemies"). Even so, most businesses erect elaborate and expensive "fire walls" to protect their computers from unauthorized access. If you can connect up with distant computers, distant computers may be able to connect up with you - without your knowledge or permission. Forest activists not only have active avowed enemies; these enemies are far advanced in their technical capability.

Cushman and Arnold, the founders of the "wise-use" movement, are major innovators in using sophisticated data processing and computer networking for organizing and fund raising. Moreover, forest activists' enemies often include elements of local government and law enforcement. Local law enforcement often refuses to seriously investigate offenses against environmental groups. Further, local media is often anxious to portray environmentalists as eco-terrorists and tree spikers who probably deserve anything they get. Even the federal government won't press charges against attacks and threats against their own employees engaged in routine environmental maintenance activities. Altogether; there is little zeal to protecting environmentalists' rights of any kind. So grassroots forest activists must always assume that the usual legal protections afforded "normal" citizens may not be available to us.

Today, computer security outside commercial establishments is practically nonexistent. Sending email is about as private as sending a postcard, probably less. What security protections that do exist for normal users are about as powerful as child proof aspirin caps. An effective security system must be in use at both ends of the message stream and may create problems for the users in their day to day use of their computers. Recent reports show that even online systems designed to be secure for credit card transactions over the Internet are proving easy to crack. Most online security is nothing more than the knowledge that most people have no reason to be targets for hackers.

More practically, environmental groups are plagued with high staff turnover and often depend on volunteers which means a constant flow of outsiders through the work space. Volunteers off the street may be placed in positions with access to sensitive information and computer systems. Giving strangers direct access to your operating system is a security challenge incomprehensible to planners of business networks.

Email is very different from the postal system or a telephone. Phone tapping requires approval at high levels of government and those involved in telephone systems or the US mail are well aware of the penalties for illegal taps. In the whole country there are only about 1200 wiretaps in place, 3/4 of them for drug related investigations. The physical settings in which one could access the US mail and non-cellular phones are highly secure. On the other hand, on-line data is much easier to get hold of, and complete transcripts of email history are available if you know where to look. Incidentally, transcripts of cellular calls are also maintained by some providers. Fax, being basically a phone call, is subject to the elaborate protections that discourage wiretapping, is more secure than email, and will likely remain so.

How Important is Information to the Grassroots?
There is an African Proverb that says one cannot awaken a person who is only pretending to be asleep. Some may feel that the movement's basic problems are due to our inability to deliver effective information to the right place in a timely way. Of course information is important and communication between groups is important, but the major problem facing environmentalists today is a willful refusal to listen, to accept or credit overwhelming information about our country's environmental problems. No one has figured out how to deliver information to the willfully ignorant.

A grassroots organizing or telecommunications strategy based on the faith that better information will solve our problems is wrong. It was wrong yesterday, is wrong today and will be wrong forever. In British Columbia it was not information, but 1000 average upstanding citizens willing to be arrested that finally brought the problems there to the public consciousness.

Years of research, science, evidence, and environmental impact statements are ineffective against determined efforts of extractive industry who maintain Western politicians as wholly owned subsidiaries. As the Packwood diaries show, Western Senators are enthralled with corporations and are doing their work, not the public's. Packwood could have been furnished with information until our printers melted and we never would have changed his stridently anti-environmental views. Lobbyists owned him, just like you own your dog. In fact we know he had the right information already because in his first term he was one of the most articulate and informed spokesman for saving wilderness that ever served in the Senate.

Is the Current Use of Email in the Movement a Floor or a Ceiling?
How many of the forest activists who could use computer systems effectively already use them? Certainly, for many, the problem is simply one of access, but the estimated 10% current use of email may be as much a ceiling as it is a floor. There may be more resistance to using computers than we suppose, especially with the security vulnerabilities they represent.

Consultants and trainers who bring people into high technology usually work with a set of people who are either self selected or whose supervisors can make them learn computers or fire them. The population we wish to reach, and must reach, will be drawn from the majority who do not presently use computers very much, if at all. Whether non-use among activists is due to a simple lack of exposure and access, or whether they may never be able to use them effectively, I do not know. I guess we will find out soon enough. The alternative to making activists computer smart is to take computer smart people and make them activists. This is what the right has done. We may well come to that too.

©2001 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.

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