The front cover of the publication Forest Voice depicts the worst fears of environmentalists. The fall 2002 issue of the tabloid newsletter shows a caricature of President Bush holding a chain saw with a hillside of cut-off tree stumps in the background.
"Only we can prevent forest fires," Bush states in the cartoon.
In the background, a man in a logging truck is saying, "Now that won’t burn anytime soon."
The back cover confirms the lingering suspicions of those who believe environmentalists are out of control. Under the banner "Zero Cut on Public Lands," the newspaper put out by the Native Forest Council of Oregon makes a pitch for donations.
Environmental activism has become a booming business in America, raising about $3.5 billion annually, according to estimates from Green-Watch, a conservative group that monitors the fund raising of certain nonprofit organizations.
That estimate jibes with a survey of 40 of the nation’s wealthiest environmental groups, whose tax forms were reviewed by the Tribune.
Those organizations reporting income of at least $5 million annually accounted for collections of about $2.2 billion in 2001, the last year for which complete figures are available. That figure is based on tax forms of the groups accessed through GuideStar, an Internet service that collects and posts the returns of nonprofit organizations. It does not include the thousands of other groups that list environmental protection as part of their charters, but report earnings of less than $5 million annually. It also does not count larger groups that may be active in environmental causes, but do not claim them as their core mission.
The total national budget for the U.S. Forest Service is about $4.7 billion in the current fiscal year.
"You need to understand that this is an industry," Pat Jackson, litigation officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern region, said of environmental groups active in suing land management agencies.
"It is a watchdog industry designed to keep the federal government where they want it. They don’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts. They never did," he said.
Financially, there is typically no downside for environmental groups that sue the Forest Service, Jackson said.
They can tap into the expertise of groups such as Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, an organization set up to provide lawyers to environmental groups challenging decisions of federal land management agencies.
That organization, based in Oakland, Calif., raised about $21.5 million in 2001, the last year for which figures were available, according to its tax returns, which must be made available to public inspection under federal law.
If the lawsuits are successful, judges typically award attorneys’ fees to the environmentalists, Jackson said.
The Forest Service also has settled cases so thinning projects can move forward, he said. One staple of those settlements typically is payment of the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees by the government, Jackson said.
Since 1994, the Southwestern region of Forest Service alone has paid out $430,000 in legal fees to environmental groups that sued the agency, according to Jackson.
On the other hand, the government typically does not seek attorneys’ fees or damages when it wins, Jackson said.
Environmentalists insist money is not the motivation in challenging federal actions.
"I don’t think we are an industry," said Rob Smith of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club. "The forest health issue and forest fires are about forest health and forest fires. There’s not some other agenda here."
The national Sierra Club Foundation, which does not break its financing down on a state-by-state basis, raised about $73.8 million in 2001.