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A semi-retired judge tears apart the historic campaign to protect unroaded forests



The environmentalists' boogeyman walks with tiny, uncertain steps. He's 87 years old, suffers from an arthritic knee and worries about stumbling and falling down. He's also slowly shrinking—he lost an inch and 24 pounds over the last three years, so now he's only 5 feet 6 and 120 pounds. But today he's looking flashy, spicing up his beige suit with a nicely coordinated daffodil-yellow shirt and an amber-hued bow tie.

The Honorable Clarence Addison Brimmer Jr., federal judge for the district of Wyoming, speaks softly and carefully even when kidding around. Don't call him Clarence, he says. "Guys who are named Clarence always have a nickname. It's just one of those things—a cross I have to bear...'Bud'—that's been my nickname for a hundred years, that's what my mother called me."

He's supposedly on "senior status" in his judicial duties—"a fancy name for half-assed retirement," he says. But on this sunny September day, he's in his courthouse office, still handling a full case load.

And that's too bad for the environmental movement. Brimmer gained notoriety through court decisions that spurned many green ambitions over the years, including the spread of wolves, grazing restrictions and Yellowstone snowmobile regulations. Even when other judges overrule his decisions, he undercuts the environmentalists' campaigns.

Frail though he appears, now Brimmer is closing in on a major kill. He's determined to wipe out what environmentalists call "the most significant land conservation initiative in nearly a century": the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

Imposed by the Clinton administration in 2001, the rule protected 58.5 million acres of national forest, mostly in the West—the wildest portions that were not already designated wilderness. Clinton's rule has since been shoved around by the Bush and Obama administrations, various courts and state governments. People argue whether it still protects all the acres it originally did, or only some or none. Regardless, it's earned superlatives—especially for how the enviros pulled it off.

It was simply "the most extensive national environmental campaign yet waged in the United States, combining grassroots organizing in nearly every state; massive infusions of philanthropic support; support from hunters and anglers; religious leaders, scientists, and the outdoor recreation industry; relentless lobbying of Congress and the executive branch; and complex and extremely long-lived litigation," writes Earthjustice's Tom Turner in his recent book, Roadless Rules: The Struggle for the Last Wild Forests.

Brimmer has issued a series of rulings against the roadless rule, most recently last June, when he reaffirmed his nationwide injunction against it. Enviros and the Obama administration appealed that decision, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver will soon begin weighing arguments on the case. The U.S. Congress and the states are also reacting to Brimmer's decision.

In a typical dismissal of Brimmer, an Ivy League enviro lawyer calls him "a crazy right-wing judge for whom reality is irrelevant."

But a closer look reveals things that the environmentalists might rather keep under wraps. The details behind the making of the rule, along with the PR campaign, demonstrate how all interest groups—from liberal enviros to libertarian Tea Partiers—carry out their goals using a mix of idealism, cynicism and brute-force politics.

Brimmer believes the roadless rule was created in a sneaky, illegal way. And he says, "I feel we have to play the cards face up."

By the 1990s, science demonstrated the value of national forest areas where roads had not yet penetrated. They contain some of the best remaining old-growth ecosystems, home to rare spotted owls, salmon and other endangered species. Existing laws protected less than half the roadless areas not in congressionally designated wilderness. Even those protections seemed tenuous, given the timber industry's political power and appetite.

National environmental groups couldn't persuade Congress to pass a law protecting roadless forest in general, and passing a single wilderness bill can take years of frustrating politicking. During the long negotiations, bulldozers often cut new roads through potential wilderness areas, taking them out of the running for strong protection. Roads also bring in weeds, wildlife-stressing traffic and other impacts. Small groups of forest activists protested by chaining themselves to heavy equipment and obstructing loggers in the woods.

That atmosphere of desperation led to the campaign for a large-scale roadless-forest rule. Leaders say it emerged organically, not through any conspiracy. But they agree that three forces provided traction in late 1997: President Clinton pushed the Forest Service to invent some means of protecting roadless areas. The Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, reportedly the biggest funder of environmental groups, launched the Heritage Forests Campaign to rally public support. And many other groups were ready to join the effort.

Imposed by the Clinton administration in 2001, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule protected 58.5 million acres of national forest. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT
  • Photo courtesy of the University of Vermont
  • Imposed by the Clinton administration in 2001, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule protected 58.5 million acres of national forest.

"The name [of the campaign] was chosen after testing several variations on focus groups," reports Turner. "'Heritage' [is] an attractive and relatively neutral word."

During the next three years, while the Clinton administration developed the roadless-forest rule, Pew and other foundations pumped about $10 million into environmental groups for protection of roadless forest, according to congressional testimony. The Heritage Forests Campaign was a kind of headquarters. From its base within the National Audubon Society in Washington, D.C., it used about $3.5 million to contract with other groups such as The Wilderness Society for their expertise in political campaigns and environmental regulations.

George Frampton, the head of The Wilderness Society from 1986 to 1993, became a key player. He was Clinton's top adviser on environmental policy from late 1998 to 2001, running the White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

"When I got to CEQ, one of the first things I did was to have [roadless-forest protection] presented to the president: 'Let's go for this, a real protective rule. Let's just protect all these wild places,'" Frampton says.

Ken Rait, who ran the Heritage Forests Campaign at the beginning, had many contacts in the Clinton administration through his previous work with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Oregon Natural Resources Council. Rait says he saw a "historic" opportunity to "craft a campaign where people could feel like part of a winning team," with an "upbeat" message and broad appeal. "Protection of wild places," he says, "is a motherhood and apple pie issue."

The huge effort was necessary because the environmentalists—in both the campaign and the administration—wanted more than just an executive order issued by Clinton. A Forest Service "administrative rule" would be harder for future presidents to change. Prodded by Clinton, the Forest Service announced its general intentions in October 1999. Then the agency spent 15 months on an environmental impact statement (EIS), including rounds of analysis and public comments. About 10,000 people commented in public hearings near the forests and far more than a million commented by mail, fax and e-mail.

"Wholesale and retail organizing"—that's how Rait describes the campaign's strategy. The "wholesale" end used new Internet tools. The groups pooled their e-mail lists and sent out e-mail "blasts" to hundreds of thousands of activists, directing them to websites where they could click to generate boilerplate e-mail comments and "e-mail postcards" to the Clinton administration. They "pioneered new electronic tricks," Turner reports, "Internet banner ads, click-through ads on Yahoo, ads that people could send to their friends and colleagues (so-called viral ads)." Specialized tech companies and nonprofits did that work, including The Technology Project, based at the Rockefeller Family Fund in New York, and The Partnership Project, which The Turner Foundation launched in 1999 with a separate $5 million grant just to make groups' e-mail lists more effective.

The "retail" organizing dispatched activists to metro neighborhoods, malls and colleges, asking people to sign pre-printed postcards supporting the roadless rule.

"We explained to people the importance of protecting roadless areas and got them to take the first step in political action," recalls Angela Storey, then a college student, who asked thousands of people in Washington state and the Boston area to sign postcards in 1999 and 2000. She says many who did had a "personal connection" with forests through recreation or living nearby. "For me, it was a really important campaign. I grew up in the Cascades and saw the increase in clear-cuts and roads, and I studied biology in college, learning about the massive changes in the environment."

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