Editor's Opinion

A special series in the Sacramento Bee newspaper exposed the myth that modern-day environmental groups operate from the "grass roots" of American society.

In one article, titled "Green is for Money," the California newspaper revealed that groups such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club are fat-cat organizations that milk a gullible public for swank accommodations and hefty propaganda campaigns.

"The movement's tradition leans toward simplicity, economy and living light on the land," wrote reporter Tom Knudson. "But today, as record sums of money flow to environmental causes, prosperity is pushing tradition aside, and the millions of Americans who support environmental groups are footing the bill."

Americans should heed this abuse. There are far worthier causes out there than providing another penthouse apartment and lavish lifestyle for a well paid environmental leader.

"High-rise offices, ritzy hotels and martinis are but one sign of wider change," revealed Knudson. "Rising executive salaries and fat Wall Street portfolios are another. So, too, is a costly reliance on fund-raising consultants for financial success. ...

"Salaries for environmental leaders have never been higher. In 1999 - the most recent year for which comparable figures are available - chief executives at nine of the nation's 10 largest environmental groups earned $200,000 and up, and one topped $300,000. In 1997, one group fired its president and awarded him a severance payment of $760,335.

"Money is flowing to conservation in unprecedented amounts, reaching $3.5 billion in 1999, up 94 percent from 1992," Knudson wrote. "But much of it is not actually used to protect the environment. Instead, it is siphoned off to pay for bureaucratic overhead and fund-raising, including expensive direct-mail and telemarketing consultants."

Unwitting supporters of this movement are not the only ones being fleeced. Taxpayers lost $31.6 million in the 1990s because of the hefty federal legal fees incurred to fight usually frivolous environmental cases filed against the government, the newspaper report revealed.

"Subsidized by federal tax dollars, environmental groups are filing a blizzard of lawsuits that no longer yield significant gain for the environment and sometimes infuriate federal judges and the Justice Department. ... Those who know the environment best - the scientists who devote their careers to it - say environmental groups often twist fact into fantasy to serve their agendas."

Knudson concluded, "There is no clearinghouse for information about environmental groups, no oversight body watching for abuse and assessing job performance."

There should be. There needs to be a level playing field in the realm of public accountability. If lawyers, the government and the media can go after high-profile cash-raisers such as corporate executives and conservative political donors like the National Rifle Association, the environmental movement should receive equally vigorous scrutiny. The Washington Post provided a public service when the newspaper investigated The Nature Conservancy for its financial practices. This coverage prompted interest from the U.S. Congress.

Such questions are long overdue. Environmental groups should not be singled out for a public flogging, but they also should not enjoy a protected status. The Sacramento Bee and Washington Post have begun fulfilling an important public duty. Imagine what we'll find if we dig a little deeper.

Anyone with comments about "Editor's Opinion" can contact David Carkhuff by calling 575-0710 or by e-mail at editor@bluemountaineagle.com.

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