LEGISLATION: Environmental Groups Suffer Fate Of Big Business

The country's largest environmental groups hope 1995 will be a turn-around year. The movement has encountered big financial problems, and its influence in Washington is at an all-time low.

Direct-mail solicitations by U.S. environmental organizations are increasingly unanswered. Long-time supporters are either sending smaller checks or drifting away al-together.

The national news media examined the environmental movement and found the groups are, on the whole, "past their prime" (USA Today) and "groping for a vision" (The Los Angeles Times).

The environmental "establishment" is probably ready for a thorough shake-up, concludes the Center for Study of American Business in its December report, "Restructuring Environmental Big Business."

The movement's loss of influence and appeal is traceable to garden-variety mismanagement, said the report. In the 1980s, the groups plunged into an aggressive growth strategy similar to many corporations and, in the process, lost sight of their mission and objectives.

The report blames the movement's leaders. "By significantly expanding the scale and scope of their groups' activities, the directors of environmental organizations hoped to capitalize on Americans' increasing demands for environmental quality," the report said. "Unfortunately, as many U.S. corporations have discovered, expansion away from an organization's core competency often has numerous disadvantages."

Some officials within the environmental movement are criticizing the report or flatly denying responsibility. The executive director of the highly-regarded Natural Resources Defense Council said the report is really a "political document and not a scientific study." He points out that Murray L. Weidenbaum, the center's director, served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Reagan, whose administration had little tolerance for environmental laws in general or for environmental groups in particular.

Some environmentalists blame a sluggish economy for lost support, or cite the Clinton/Gore administration's relative sympathy for conservation themes.

"The [primary] cause of problems has been the economy," said a spokesman for the Wilderness Society. "When the economy went down, so did our membership. The election of Clinton and Gore also didn't help. Some people believed there was less need to support environmental causes."

However, other environmental leaders concede that the center has pinpointed what's gone wrong. "We in the not-for-profit business are subject to the same forces as any other business," said a director of the National Audubon Society. Consequently, the Society is distributing copies of the report to its key executives. "Our business is basically communications and we've lost the imagination of the average guy in the street."

Center researchers spent over a year pouring over financial statements, tax reports and other information from five major environmental organizations: the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservancy. Interestingly, only the Nature Conservancy has not suffered a drop in revenue or membership. The report attributes this phenomenon to the fact that the group confines itself to buying and selling wild and scenic lands, and doesn't lobby or litigate.

The other groups spent the '80s setting up large, elaborate programs to address a host of complicated scientific issues and thorny political causes, according to the report. This effort required an ex-panded lobbying staff and other trappings of sophisticated public interest campaigns.

As the groups' list of environmental concerns vastly expanded, the groups hoped for correspondingly larger contributions and membership. However, the available dollars and the numbers of truly committed potential contributors were limited, the report noted.

The groups' fundraising free-for-all inevitably led to exaggerated and misleading statements about the decline or elimination of natural resources and wildlife. Mean-while, many savvy scientists and some grass roots environmental leaders began criticizing the na-tional organizations' tactics and fo-cus.

The scientists raised doubts about the methods, priorities and credibility of big-name environmental groups. Community organizers faulted the groups' neglect of land-use questions and local pollution problems. This criticism further slowed the growth of the environmental movement.

However, the Center's report notes that these national organizations can regain their clout: "environmental big business should follow many of [its] private sector counterparts - trim down and stick to core competencies."