In 1964, an unnamed Montanan traced his finger on a map around what Congress had just established as the Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwestern Montana.

"That's it," the man told a New York Times reporter. "It has been pretty well explored for minerals, but you never can tell when somebody might try something again. Let's hope nobody can touch it now. It's something that should have been done a long time ago."

Those were heady times for the American environmental movement. In the decade following passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act - the first legislation of its kind in the world - Congress also passed the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts and created the Environmental Protection Agency. All those measures passed Congress by near-unanimous votes.

Around the same time, Montanans ratified a new state constitution that guaranteed citizens' rights to a "clean and healthful environment" and the Montana Legislature passed the Montana Environmental Protection Act.

But that was then.

This is now: No new wilderness has been designated in the state for 30 years. Polls show Montanans want environmental laws weakened. And Congress has, to date, been unwilling to act on what is arguably the most-pressing environmental issue of the day: climate change.

Furthermore, environmental victories in the courts have prompted lawmakers to take aim at the very laws that the environmental groups used to sue in the first place. One bill in Congress would target logging lawsuits by mandating thousands of acres of forest be logged. Another would strip wolves of endangered-species protection no matter how small the wolf population gets.

People inside and outside the environmental movement agree it faces serious challenges. But where some see those challenges as symptoms of larger issues - more money in politics or more polarization in Congress - others see a clear need for the environmental movement to change tactics or face serious consequences.

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In 2009, as Montana embarked on its first-ever fair chase wolf hunt, a Defenders of Wildlife video advertisement played over and over on a jumbo screen in New York City's Times Square.

It showed footage of wolf pups playing in a verdant field with an ominous message beneath: "Wolf families are threatened. They are being killed."

The video gave viewers a number they could text to donate $5 to the group to help it bring a lawsuit, along with 13 other groups, to block the federal government's decision to take the wolf off the endangered-species list in Idaho and Montana.

The ad campaign was successful, Defenders said, as was the lawsuit.

But both may have undercut the effort by triggering a congressional backlash and advancing what critics call a flawed strategy of appealing to coastal sensibilities when taking stands on Rocky Mountain issues.

"The green groups are listening to the majority of their membership, and I think they're being pushed in a direction where local political sentiment is a lower priority or a casualty," said Bill Schneider, founder of the Helena-based outdoors-guidebook Falcon Press and a syndicated columnist.

Schneider has been critical of the environmental movement in recent years, saying it is pushing its luck with unbending stances on everything from wilderness to wolves.

In 1995, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, nobody could dispute that they were endangered, he said. Few could argue that the grizzly bear was in danger of going extinct when it was listed in 1975, either.

However, as both those animals' populations have grown to numbers biologists say are healthy, the public has become skeptical of legal efforts by environmental groups to keep the species on the list -- and possibly of the Endangered Species Act itself.

"That's part of my pitch of why they blew it. They're giving the Endangered Species Act such a bad rap that it takes a lot of backbone for a federal official to declare anything endangered," Schneider said.

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And it is not just wolves stirring the ire of public officials.

In 2009, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., unveiled his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which would create more than 550,000 acres of wilderness in southwest Montana, but would also mandate logging 70,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest over 10 years.

When he introduced the bill, Tester made it clear the logging provisions were aimed at environmental groups he claimed were unduly stymieing timber projects and logging jobs through lawsuits. While many environmental groups have gotten behind the proposal, others are wary of the prospect of the precedent set by mandating logging on public lands.

In a similar vein, the Montana Legislature is advancing a bill that would make it more difficult for people to sue under the Montana Environmental Policy Act - the state's landmark environmental law. And a recent poll conducted by Lee Newspapers found that 53 percent of Montanans support loosening state law to encourage more mineral extraction.

Some environmentalists contend that the anti-conservation rhetoric is part of a natural swing of public opinion, albeit a more extreme swing than usual.

"I used to think of it like a pendulum," said Steve Kelly, a Bozeman man who helped found the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "Now it's like a metronome and someone keeps pushing the weight down. The swings are coming closer together and are more intense."

But Kelly also said he looks at more than just wilderness designation when measuring his group's success.

"I feel like we protected the roadless areas for the species," he said. "What we've got, it just doesn't have an official protection label. When I started, there were 6.4 million of roadless lands. Some of it has gotten away from us, but not that much."

But others contend the movement has lost momentum.

Liz Shanahan, a Montana State University political science professor, has studied the narratives the environmental movement uses to gain support for its causes. People need emotional investment in causes, she said, and fear of environmental catastrophe was once a powerful motivator.

However, she argued, the public is no longer responding to that tactic.

"The Chicken Little, sky-is-falling narrative has worn on the public," she said. "The environmental narrative has to change if they want to be successful. Watching the polar bear as the symbol of climate change is not working."

In Montana, she said, the movement also has to contend with the bad taste left behind by the wolf wars.

"The original success of the wolves has cost the environmental movement a lot of political capital," she said. "It's emptied their bank account."

While making no apologies about the Greater Yellowstone Coalition's effort to keep the wolf on the endangered species list, that group's executive director Mike Clark acknowledged that the fight over wolves did cause a bigger backlash than he expected.

"I think we underestimated the impact of wolves when we brought them in when you look at the impacts on rural society," he said. "I think you have to look at the psychological impacts and you have to look at the change of behavior."

The lawsuit "cost us enormously in terms of public support," he said.

Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain field director for the Defenders of Wildlife, said his group presumed that there would be some local backlash on wolves, but the congressional response was stronger than expected.

"We certainly knew there was a risk of legislative responses, but they got more steam than we anticipated," he said. "Wolf-delisting legislation came within a hair's breadth of passing at the end of the last Congress, and it has only gained steam since then."

However, Leahy said he doubted the wolf lawsuit would make it more difficult for him to promote endangered species in the future.

"I think the fundamental support for conservation has not eroded that much," he said. "A lot of the backlash against wolves and some of the pushback against conservation measures reflects people getting tired of conflict.

"There were plenty of people who didn't have a problem with wolves, but they were tired of the battle going on."

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While the 1960s and 1970s saw watershed moments for the environmental movement, those decades also saw environmental catastrophes unlike anything the United States now knows: a river in Ohio catching fire, a town in northwest Montana blanketed in asbestos, revelations that the common pesticide DDT may be wiping out America's raptors.

"The environmental movement was not born out of contention. It was, ‘Yeah, we have pollution,'" said MSU's Shanahan.

And conservation groups in Montana have had plenty of victories in recent years with broad support. Mineral leases adjacent to Glacier National Park have been retired and hundreds of thousands of acres once owned by the Plum Creek Timber Company put under conservation easements.

The same poll that showed Montanans wanted more mineral extraction also showed even stronger support for renewable energy.

Matt Skoglund, a wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, was hopeful today's challenges could spark new enthusiasm in the movement.

"Without a doubt, both at the state level and the federal level, there are a lot of attacks on environmental laws," he said. "While that's discouraging, it's also motivating people to fight.

"The fight that we have is for clear water, clean air and a healthy environment. Frankly, who's not for clean air, clean water and protecting the planet?"

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.

 

Related Map

Click the button below to see a map of local conservation groups, along with data on how much revenue they generate, how much they pay in salaries and how many people they employ.

Green Group Headquarters


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This map shows the addresses of a number of conservation organizations — so-called "green" groups — that are headquartered in the Bozeman area. Financial information is taken from the organizations' tax filings for 2009.

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