Sep 252012
 

The story of the birth and evolution of Sonoma County Conservation Action has been described briefly in a couple of books about the environmental movements of the San Francisco Bay Area: The Country in the City by Richard Walker, and Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast by Martin Griffin, M.D.

Unfortunately, both of these works went to print without fact-checking their texts with those who were actually present at the events they describe, and as a result, they got substantial parts of the story wrong.

With the celebration of the 21st anniversary of the launch of the Conservation Action canvass, I’m thinking about those days again. As the initial proponent and overseer of the organization’s development for its first ten years, I may be the only person who remembers the organization’s early history in detail.

It’s a pretty good tale, if I do say so myself, and worth preserving. So here it is. We’re talking about a span of twenty-one years, all told, so this will come out in chunks. Enjoy.

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A Sense of Place

After graduating from high school, I moved from Davis, a college town in California’s Central Valley, to Santa Rosa, located some 50 miles north of San Francisco. I was on my own when it came to paying for my higher education, and Santa Rosa Junior College was said to be the third-best such institution in the country: affordable, reputable, and with a high transfer rate to university. Off I went. It was 1979; I was 17.

Settling on Sonoma County for my first two years of college brought unexpected rewards. As those who come from across the world to visit will attest, the place is amazing…particularly if you have spent your childhood staring across table-flat sugar beet fields to the unattainable hills of the horizon.

Suddenly, I lived among epic landscapes of soft coastal mountains, gold in the summer and green in the winter, with oak, bay, madrone and manzanita in the ravines between them. Redwood forests that felt so ancient I expected dinosaurs to come crashing into their silence. A wild coastline of high bluffs and secluded coves that looks for all the world like Scotland. A (usually) mild, lazy river meandering to the sea, lined with green riparian forests. Temperate climate, neither too cold nor too warm. Great air and water quality (sadly, less so now than they were then). Some of the best wine, beer and food on Earth, period, full stop. And a population largely made up of tolerant, liberal-minded refugees from other places that have been ruined by urban sprawl.

When I arrived, the county’s electoral demographics had only recently shifted from a majority of rural and small-town conservatives. That transition was not in any way reflected in the county’s politics, which were dominated by developers, realtors and builders cashing in on the county’s sudden attractiveness to home buyers, and agricultural land owners selling lands on the urban fringe for conversion to sprawl subdivisions. While a substantial group of back-to-the-land counterculturalists had settled in the western part of the county in the early 1970s, it had failed to gain much traction over the county’s land use, transportation, and water policies. So while voices expressing environmental concern were heard, they were generally dismissed as fringe, minority positions, and ignored by policy makers, who continued to dance with them what brung ’em.

In 1979, Sonoma County was represented in Congress by a 9-term conservative Republican, and substantial majorities of both its Board of Supervisors and the city councils of its municipalities were owned lock, stock and barrel by the interests busily grinding Heaven on Earth into money. Polls showed that impacts of rapid growth were at the top of voter concerns, but their only sources of information about local candidates for office were the candidates’ own campaign literature and the local daily, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat…a substantial portion of the revenues of which derived from real estate advertising and other direct support from the interests running the show.

I became aware of all this, but didn’t engage with it much. I had always been interested in politics, but I was in college, waiting tables to survive and putting whatever extra time I had into speech and debate competition. I didn’t have time for activism.

I did have one bizarre engagement with the county’s politics during this time. My roommate and I were dragged by his father—a realtor with the infamous Soderling Brothers, who were subsequently convicted of a series of felonies—to an Election Night party celebrating voter approval of the Warm Springs Dam. This was before the wheels came off the bus in the federal savings and loan scandal, of course, in which Sonoma County developers, political figures and financial institutions were to play a prominent role (read this book, if you haven’t. It’s both fascinating and damning).

I’m quite sure I’m the only person ever to become a part of Sonoma County’s environmental movement who happened to find himself at that party. I remember then-Sheriff Roger McDermott bending my ear about something while, trying to pretend to pay attention, I looked around at the room full of drunken, exulting cow-town Good Ol’ Boys, thinking, these cannot possibly be the people directing the course of this county’s future.

 

Skills

I graduated from SRJC (::cough valedictory speaker cough::) and then commuted by bus to San Francisco State to complete my Bachelors Degree.  When I opted for graduate school in 1986, I finally pulled up stakes and moved to the City.

I needed a job while attending graduate school, so I looked in the nonprofit, public benefit sector. A friend pointed me at a building on Market Street filled with the offices of public-interest organizations; I started at the top floor and worked my way down, asking at each office if any of them had any jobs. On the fifth floor, I found the California League of Conservation Voters.

They had jobs. Canvassing jobs.

Over the next three years, I became first a trainee, and then a canvasser, a trainer, and a field manager for the League. Unlike many canvassing operations—yes, I’m looking at you, Greenpeace and PIRGs—the League’s field staff were viewed as organizers, not just fundraisers, and the organization invested the time, content and rigor in their training program to give staff what they needed to be effective. The League viewed recruiting membership and contributions as a means to the end of keeping the staff in the field, where we mobilized thousands of hand-written letters from voters to elected officials in targeted campaigns, distributed endorsements and campaigned for candidates and ballot measures the League supported, recruited volunteers, and disseminated an annual legislative report card on the California Assembly and State Senate. League canvassers understood that we were the face of the organization and would be back at the same doors again year after year; we needed to maintain a cordial, respectful and professional demeanor when interacting with the public. Pushy, foot-in-the-door types were not welcome.

I knocked on tens of thousands of doors for the League and worked on at least a couple of dozen campaigns, raising more than $100,000 in contributions averaging less than $30 per. I learned how to craft effective messages: how to talk with people about the League’s issues from many different standpoints, whether birds-and-bunnies environmentalism, fiscal conservatism, grassroots democracy, government accountability or resource efficiency. I traveled on cross-training trips to work on campaigns and help build canvass offices for other organizations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and the League’s own office in Southern California.

While at the League, I met Bill Kortum, a former Sonoma County Supervisor who had been one of the founding members of the CLCV board. He and I hit it off because of our shared affinity for Sonoma County, and during breaks in board meetings, we had a couple of conversations about how Sonoma County could really use a local-scale grassroots organizing program before what was great about the county went the way that what was great about the San Fernando Valley had gone.

 

The Idea

in 1989, my life happened to reach a juncture where there was a chance to make a big change: a relationship had ended, I was being forced to move from my apartment, and it was going to cost every dime of my savings to move into another place. So I jumped sideways instead: I put my possessions into storage in my brother’s garage, bought a one-way ticket to Amsterdam, shouldered a backpack and took off. I traveled throughout Europe and into North Africa for more than a year, settling in Barcelona during the school year to teach English.

As I began to consider returning to the U.S. in spring of 1990,  I thought about those conversations with Bill. I knew Sonoma County was where I wanted to live, and wanted it to retain the qualities I so loved about it. Those qualities had already been threatened just in the time since I’d first moved there, and something needed to be done, or there was certainly the possibility that Sonoma County would go the way of many other formerly wonderful places: The “Valley of Heart’s Desire”, for example, which we now call Silicon Valley, or that well-known land of bucolic orchards, Orange County.

It occurred to me that there couldn’t be many people out there who had both a passion for Sonoma County and the skill set I had developed while working with the League. If a program like the one Bill and I had discussed was going to happen, I was probably going to have to build it.

Next: Early Days

Sep 092012
 

Twenty-one years ago today, I stepped up to the door of a house in Windsor, knocked, and recruited the very first member of Sonoma County Conservation Action.

More than two decades of remarkable policy achievements (voter-approved Urban Growth Boundaries in every city; regulations limiting development of hillside vineyards on steep slopes and near streams; defeat of the City of Santa Rosa’s attempts to make the Estero Americano and the Russian River the receiver of its wastewater; approval of the SMART rail system) and election of dozens of sterling environmental officials later, SCCA is still going strong.

We celebrated the anniversary today with an event at the Hotel La Rose.

As SCCA’s founding Executive Director and initial proponent, I am so proud…as should be the thousands of members, donors, staff and volunteers who have made Conservation Action such a potent force for grassroots democracy and environmental protection since 1991.

Image shown is Conservation Action’s original logo, long since updated.

At publication, the Dragon was PROUD

Fighting the Last War

 Posted by at 2:46 pm  National Politics
Sep 032012
 

One of the recurring warnings/lessons/pitfalls in military history and strategic training is the propensity for armies to prepare and plan for the last war they fought, rather than the next.

This is natural in humans: we learn based on experience and plan our future actions based on what we learned. It’s our one big evolutionary advantage.

Well, and thumbs.

The problem, of course, is that conditions and technology continue to evolve between the last conflict and the next. Since the 19th century they have done so at a breakneck pace. Yet those in positions of authority—often convinced by their long experience that they have understanding of what is coming—continue to make plans based on what they learned in the last conflict, much of which may no longer be applicable.

And so you get horse cavalry riding into machine-gun fire in World War I. You get France pouring resources into the Maginot Line to prevent a recurrence of World War I…and Hitler just going right around it by invading Belgium. You get years of senseless slaughter of American troops fighting to “take the hill” in Vietnam, only to lose it the minute they go back to base, because the brass doesn’t understand that they are in a guerrilla war, not a front-line war. And today, you get insane amounts of American money going into maintaining military presences in places like Japan and Germany where they have long since been unnecessary.

This brings me to Republican Presidential campaign strategy in 2012.

Since Ronald Reagan’s campaign, GOP Presidential campaign strategy has boiled down to this:

  1. Publicly, paint a glowing, nostalgic fantasy of what you’ll make of the country, avoiding specifics and sticking to platitudes;
  2. Make private promises to social conservatives you feel no particular commitment to keeping;
  3. Make private promises to wealthy donors you absolutely intend to keep;
  4. Do everything you can to load the dice: make it difficult for minorities and the poor to vote, promote cynicism about voting, etc.

That strategy worked for a long time. The coalition of the wealthy and the socially conservative remained aligned, solidified and grew: so much so that by 2000, Karl Rove decided that it was big enough that he could ignore swing voters entirely, and win simply by galvanizing the base with a hard-right message. And with the help of some vote suppression, Ralph Nader and five members of the Supreme Court, it worked.

It continued to work in 2004, even as the shine was coming off the Republican brand. As the economy became increasingly untenable for any but the very rich, the Iraq War proved itself to be both unwarranted and not the slam-dunk that had been promised, we bogged down in Afghanistan and the last of Bush’s post-September-11 poll resurgence faded away, it was a narrow thing. But he won, promptly tanked again in popularity, and control of Congress was wrested away by Democrats in 2006.

It took decades, but the Shrub finally broke the spell of the Republican brand for many reasonable Americans, who had watched the GOP get crazier and more and more unwilling to listen or govern since 1980.

The problem with having a culture based on unquestioning faith in dubious principles is that by definition, you don’t learn. Instead, you just tell yourself you already know everything, and any who disagree must be wrong.

So Rove & Co. didn’t learn that things had changed. They just kept running the only plays they knew: tell a happy-making story, game the system as much as you can, and work the base into a foaming lather so they’ll turn out.  But it failed in 2008. The GOP base had shrunk, the party’s constituencies were at one another’s throats, and an unexpected surge of young voters upended the smugly assured “real numbers” of Bush’s Brain.

They’re running exactly the same playbook in 2012. And thus we get voter ID laws and voter roll purges and Citizens United and busting of public employee unions, and the Platform of Hammurabi.

Other than in his snipes at the President, Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was in all pertinent particulars Ronald Reagan’s in 1980 and 1984: an invocation of a mythical postwar suburban America where all was safe and good for white men, women knew their place, and minorities were silent and invisible except when they were cleaning your house, shining your shoes or carrying your golf clubs. “Morning Again In America” all over again, 32 years after the first time this sanitized lie was sold to the American voter.

Of course, this fantasy describes a world that never existed, but I’m not talking about the content. I’m talking about the applicability of that message to the problem at hand, which is winning the election. With an electorate composed of today’s proportion of women who believe they should be treated as equals, minority voters, plus younger voters who don’t even know what he is talking about when he invokes the days of vanilla malteds at the drive-in with Peggy Sue, Romney and his handlers have developed yet another retread of a campaign plan designed to fight the last war.

No candidate has tried harder than Mitt Romney to obscure, deny, and obfuscate what his party really stands for. He and campaign strategists in his party understand that they cannot sell their policies on the merits (even zealot Paul Ryan is now doing a cute little dance around his plans to gut social safety net programs). But they believe that the Reagan/Bush Just-Keep-Telling-The-Pretty-Story-to-The-Believers strategy will once again sweep them into office, as it did those past Presidents.

My read is that it can’t work, and will work less and less going forward. So long as Republican strategists feel locked into trying to sell a vision of America as a White Man’s Suburban Christian Paradise to an increasingly urbanized and diverse country, their percentage of the vote will shrink.

They’re fighting the last war. The country has changed. If we have Happy Days ahead of us, the malteds come in a rainbow of flavors, the burgers are served with salsa, and Peggy Sue is the CEO of the drive-in chain.

At publication, the Dragon was SANGUINE

Aug 042012
 
Image of John Muir

Be advised: this great man is dead.

It’s time to talk about THIS.

As a lifelong and career environmentalist, let me say this: greenies, you’re getting played. This is a bad, bad idea.

How do I count the ways? Let’s see…

First: do you see a lot of extra water laying around the American West? No, you don’t. So abandoning a working water supply infrastructure currently serving millions of people is maybe not so bright, straight out of the gate.

Second: add projected uncertainties due to climate change. So… abandoning a working water supply infrastructure currently serving millions of people is, again, maybe not so bright.

Third: what, exactly, do you hope to get out of this high-cost, high-risk venture? One valleymaybe restored to biodiversity, maybe not. No one has ever tried to reclaim an entire valley like this after a century of accumulated drowning under water and silt. Pretty big bet for a small payoff in the broad scheme of things.

It’s a valley that used to be very pretty, but it’s still just one valley. There are a lot of better investments for restoration dollars that don’t involve having to build another water system and trying something you don’t know is going to work. If you’re going to tell me that part of the payoff is a warm glowy feeling about “doing what is right” or “bringing peace to John Muir’s ghost,” please don’t: the man is dead, and making major decisions like this based on romantic feelings is not sensible in the least.

Fourth: speaking of silt… if the idea is to reestablish Hetch Hetchy much as it was, exactly how are you going to remove all that silt? And how do you propose to do it without severely threatening water quality downstream?

Fifth, take a look at who keeps proposing this. The initial proponent was Don Hodel–Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior after James Watt was driven out for expressing a bit too much of Teh Fundamentalist Crazy. He was one of the worst Secretaries we have ever had. He’s a right-wing evangelical Christian without a green bone in his body. He’s a former President of the Christian Coalition, and backed Pat Robertson for President. He believes the Book of Revelations, and accordingly, has zero reason to care about what happens to Planet Earth. The GW Bush administration tried to study draining Hetch Hetchy, too…and we all know what great green heroes THEY were.

The current point person of the anti-environmental right wing to propose draining Hetch Hetchy is Dan Lungren, a similarly hardcore conservative who had a ZERO PERCENT California League of Conservation Voters voting record while in the California State Legislature, and has maintained that sterling record in Congress.

These are the people to look to for bright ideas on the environmental front? C’mon: this isn’t hard to read.

Sixth, and most pertinently: what is this really about?

I’ll tell you. It’s about two things, both of them are pretty simple, and neither of them is even remotely good for the environment:

  • It’s about screwing with Democrats and liberals. This is a laugher for Republicans. They get to watch Democrat square off against Democrat in the most liberal metropolitan area in the country. Every greenie who gets disgusted and votes or donates third-party as a result of Democratic leaders’ opposing this stupid idea is another chip in their pile.
  • More than anything, it’s about bending the liberal Bay Area over a barrel for Southern and Central California water interests. So long as the greater Bay Area has a water supply system independent of the California Water Project, it has the latitude to put up a fuss about ideas like the never dead Peripheral Canal (or Tunnel, or Aqueduct, or Skyway, or whatever it’s going to be called next). But make it a part of that broader system (which would be the natural result of taking away that storage), and now it’s in a scrum with much larger and more powerful opponents, and it is sure as hell not going to let a smelt get in the way of having water to drink.

One of the biggest Achilles’ heels for the environmental movement is that element that is driven by romantic ideas rather than by science and reason. It’s the kind of thinking that leads people to pour funding in response to mail campaigns featuring charismatic critters with Big Brown Eyes, when it is the fabric of life–microbes, insects, plants and all–that really are the environment and sustain life on Planet Earth, brown-eyed or not.

Hetch Hetchy was lost. It was wrong, but it’s over. In today’s context, it is absolutely a baited trap for environmentalists to indulge themselves in a fantasy about undoing what has been done.

At publication, the Dragon was: BLUNT