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Environmental Groups Struggle to Boost Declining Memberships

November 28, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Just as a new and more conservative Republican Congress threatens to roll back environmental regulations, major environmental groups are struggling to stem declining memberships and dwindling contributions.

The financial problems threatening many of the country’s environmental organizations was dramatized last week when the 102-year-old Sierra Club, announced a 10 percent cut in staff after losing $2.9 million over the last four years.

The Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society also have faced membership problems and disappointing revenues since the booming growth that accompanied the 20th anniversary of Earth Day nearly five years ago.

But spokesmen for the three conservation groups said the worst seems to be over with membership either stabilized or rebounding. But even groups with continued growth are uneasy and are re-examining their programs with an eye toward cutting costs and getting the most out of limited resources.

The environmental movement’s membership and revenue concerns come at a time when environmentalists are under some of the sharpest attacks in years from conservatives in Congress, property-rights advocates and commercial interests that see environmental regulation as the enemy of economic growth.

This followed two years in which many environmentalists have become complacent, partly because the Clinton administration had put card-carrying environmentalists in many key positions of power. For example: Vice President Al Gore and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

But environmentalists found the recently completed 103rd Congress anything but pro-environment. And they fear the new, clearly more conservative Republican-led Congress may try to emasculate environmental laws altogether by hamstringing regulators. A growing number of legislators want to toughen risk assessment requirements and protect property owners from intrusive environmental regulations.

Some environmental leaders suggest the new hostility in Congress may spur membership and contributions, but others see that as little to cheer about.

″It reminds me of a mortician saying it’s great that there’s a big death wave,″ says Erik Olson, who follows congressional issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group.

Jack Murray, the NRDC’s director of development, says the apparent attempt by some leaders in the next Congress ″to dismantle the environmental laws of this country″ can’t help but increase interest in environmental organizations. ″There’s no doubt our membership income will grow.″

The NRDC with revenues of $22.3 million last year, has had steady growth since 1990. But in the last few years ″we haven’t had strong growth,″ said Murray. ″We haven’t been immune.″

In recent years the National Audubon Society has undergone both membership and financial shocks as it refocused its interests - to the dismay of some longtime members - and felt the pressures of the faltering economy. ″But we’ve seen a real bounce back in 1994,″ said Tom Martin, Audubon’s chief operating officer.

Like the Sierra Club, both the Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society have reduced staff at various times in recent years because of budget difficulties.

″Our problems crested a year or so ago when we laid off six people,″ says Wilderness Society spokesman Ben Beach. Nevertheless, since 1990 membership has dropped from 400,000 to 275,000 and annual revenues from nearly $18 million to $15 million.

The National Wildlife Federation’s membership of 1.7 million is about what it was in 1985, but about 200,000 fewer than what it was in 1990. Membership in the Sierra Club peaked at 630,000 in 1990, but fell by nearly 100,000 over the next three years before rebounding this year to 570,000 members.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, says that while membership is rebounding, average contributions are still down, requiring belt-tightening measures. He blamed the poor economy that has led to declines in contributions to non-profit groups in general.

Pope said the Sierra Club will eliminate about 40 positions from its 350- person staff and is re-examining its agenda to focus on areas it can have the most impact. ″It’s been a very painful process,″ Pope said in an interview.

Greenpeace, which boasts of having several million members worldwide, also reports average contributions down slightly. Rick Hind, a Greenpeace spokesman, also blamed the poor economy and said such fluctuations are not unusual.

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