“They Damaged Themselves”, Tom Knudson's Expose' on Greenies


Mar 11, 2001
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“They Damaged Themselves” Tom Knudson, Two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner Commenting on His 16-Month Sacramento Bee Investigation of Environmental Organizations


SACRAMENTO, CA - Tom Knudson is not the first journalist to do an about face where the environmental industry is concerned, but he has certainly created the biggest ruckus in quite some time.  

           Knudson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, blew the lid off contemporary environmentalism in a five-part Sacramento Bee series that began April 22 – ironically, Earth Day. “Environment, Inc.” might well win Mr. Knudson his third Pulitzer. Short of that his penetrating series has already prompted calls for a congressional investigation of the fund raising practices of several non-for-profit organizations that he concedes seem more interested in promoting conflict than in resolving publicly contentious environmental issues.  

           Simple curiosity prompted Mr. Knudson to begin his 16-month investigation in late 1999. What he found is only partly revealed in his series. Some insiders he interviewed would talk only on condition of anonymity. But he was nonetheless able to unearth a Byzantine funding structure that has transformed old-fashioned concern for the planet earth into a multi-billion dollar industry that is increasingly disconnected from the public interests it purports to serve.  

“I got curious about what goes on inside these groups,” Mr. Knudson said yesterday in a lengthy telephone interview. “Journalists have a responsibility to scrutinize all institutions of power, including government, industry and now environmentalism, which seems to have become an industry. They’ve accumulated a lot of power over the last few years. There are more groups and they are more boisterous. I wanted to learn what I could about their fundraising practices.”  

What unfolds is a story that could easily be made into a television mini-series, complete with Washington insiders willing to privately concede that their organizations are out of touch. Even the titles chosen for the five-part series speak volumes of Mr. Knudson’s discoveries: “Price of Power, Cause or commerce? Strongest suit, Apocalypse now and Hope not hype” trace environmentalism’s transformation from neighborhood activist to global powerhouse.  

“I heard some very powerful stories,” he said of an investigation that he estimates cost the Sacramento Bee at least $100,000. “A lot of the material I gathered was never used because I was given to me in confidence. But it did serve its purpose by reinforcing the conclusions we drew in the series.”    

Mr. Knudson’s remarkable series is made even more remarkable by the fact that his second Pulitzer – won in 1992 – was for a hard-hitting series that, among other things, took the timber industry to task for harvesting practices then in use in California’s Sierra Nevada range. Though some readers felt the series was overly critical of harvesting practices, Mr. Knudson defends the old series, noting his perception that the timber industry was “in denial” in much the same way he says environmentalists are now.  

“Times were different then,” he said. “Some logging was pretty reckless. But there have been dramatic changes. State and federal regulations seem to have curbed the old abuses, but environmentalists either don’t recognize the progress that has been made or they don’t want to admit that it has occurred. The same old find-a-new-enemy find-a-new-crisis rhetoric continues, apparently for its own sake.”  

Since his series was published, Mr. Knudson has received more than 900 e-mail notes from readers. Most who write are complimentary, but a few accuse him of betrayal, suggesting that he has done irreparable harm to environmental causes.  

“They damaged themselves,” he says, “by conducting their affairs in very unappealing ways, by being very ungracious in victory and by failing to recognize that industries can be a good environmental stewards too.”  

Of all of Mr. Knudson’s discoveries none surprised him more than the ability of some environmental groups to “cover their fund raising trails.” He said close scrutiny of their federal tax returns reveals some groups are spending two and three times as much money on fund raising as they report to donors. Some groups, he said, don’t meet voluntary financial standards set by independent charity watchdog groups.  

Equally troubling for Mr. Knudson was his discovery that environmentalists can sometimes litigate against companies and individuals that are working to help the environment, forcing them to spend large sums of money defending their actions. Some, he says, have turned litigation into a blood sport, collecting large sums of money in attorney’s fees and court costs. “I’ve heard the term ‘conflict industry’ used to describe what is happening today. I can see why.”  

And according to Mr. Knudson, many insiders are worried about what he describes as “the non-stop stream of crisis making” embodied in direct mail appeals to well meaning contributors “There is now a fear that the public is jaded and will not respond in a time of real environmental crisis – like the boy who cried wolf one too many times,” he explained.  

Mr. Knudson concedes he is deeply troubled by what he has witnessed in the rural West in recent years, by the economic collapse of entire timber and farming communities that have found themselves in the crosshairs of environmental lawyers and lobbyists.    

“Conservation that excludes people cannot survive in the long run,” he observes. “It must recognize and work with those who provide resources. I think rural people have often been treated horribly and arrogantly. It is no wonder so many are so angry.”  

But Mr. Knudson’s often frustrating story is not without a happy ending – or at least the makings of one. He thinks he may have found environmentalism’s new frontier, and he likes what he sees.  

“The creativity and energy that I found in very small, usually rural groups that no one ever heard of was very refreshing,” he says. “Given the opportunity, people with very different points of view are able to solve complex and often controversial environmental problems. They’re doing great work. Clearly, conservation is at a crossroads. The only question is will the doers and problem solvers take over or will those with vested interests in stirring up new conflicts maintain control.”  

Here is the link to read the whole series of 5 articles. http://www.sacbee.com/news/projects/environment/index02.html


Well-known member
Mar 12, 2001
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Wow, can't believe I missed this one when it was posted.  

Interesting stuff.  Yes indeed.

You cannot defeat a system by working outside that system... you must become the system.

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