Forest Activist Making Mark
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Ken Rait is an aggressive, sometimes pushy Oregonian who has won accolades from his peers and the grudging respect of opponents while building a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost environmental activists.
``This guy seems to be the Forrest Gump of the forest movement,″ said Duane Gibson, a lawyer for the House Resources Committee, alluding to Rait’s penchant for getting in the middle of major environmental issues.
Rait gained notoriety in 1996 when he spearheaded a movement to persuade President Clinton to protect a 1.7 million-acre swath of land in Utah as a federal monument.
Then, as director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, Rait helped persuade Clinton to seek protection for approximately 50 million acres of forest _ a move hailed by environmentalists as one of the major conservation initiatives of the 20th century.
Rait, 37, lacks the portfolio of a Washington power broker. He is not a major political donor or Capitol Hill veteran, nor has he served in any White House administrations.
But he is relentless when in pursuit of a cause.
``He’s aggressive, effective _ sometimes abrasive _ but I sure respect him,″ said Josh Kardon, chief of staff for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. ``It would be difficult to argue that Ken Rait hasn’t been one of the most effective environmental activists over the last decade.″
Those who know him say Rait has mastered the tools of his trade, blending high-tech savvy, media skills, political sophistication and grass-roots activism into a powerful pro-environment punch.
The combination has helped Rait tap into major contributors.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based foundation, awarded the National Audubon Society some of Pew’s larger environmental grants _ nearly $3.5 million over 27 months _ to finance Rait’s forest protection campaign.
Pew leaders knew of Rait’s work in successfully pushing for creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Monument status adds protections for federal land against activities such as mining, logging and off-road vehicle use.
The Pew grants, which comprise 90 percent of the Heritage Forest Campaign’s budget, gave Rait access to an arsenal of weapons. He hired consultants, ran full-page newspaper ads and commissioned a poll showing public support for forest protection.
Rait also held an ``Internet day of action″ last year. Activists flooded the White House with more than 100,000 e-mails urging Clinton to protect forests.
``When the White House gets 2,000 calls a day over a period of two months, that’s something they sit up and take notice about,″ said Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The campaign resulted in Clinton initiating a regulatory process that is expected when completed to give federal protection to 50 million acres of roadless forests.
``I do think it’s a situation where the stars really began to line up,″ Rait said. ``Sometimes good things happen for the right reasons.″
Rait’s work on the issue has drawn critical attention from House investigators. The staff of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health released a preliminary report last week that said the ``roadless area initiative was developed in an environmental vacuum, with virtually all input coming from a select few in the environmental community, primarily Ken Rait.″
Rait never expected to be a diehard environmental activist. The Buffalo, N.Y., native was set to follow his father’s footsteps and become a dentist, but high school trips to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York imbued a passion for the outdoors.
When he was in college at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., Rait learned the affects of acid rain on the Adirondacks, which led him to take a greater interest in the environment.
While in Tucson, Ariz., in 1986 pursuing a Ph.D. in hydrology and water resources, which he never completed, Rait volunteered with the local Sierra Club. He soon found himself devoting more time to environmental causes.
In 1990 he landed his first paying job as an environmentalist with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Salt Lake City. His advocacy in protecting Utah lands reached a peak when Clinton agreed to monument status for the Grand Staircase.
``What was stunning about that was ... the administration took a hard look at the largest undeveloped coal field in the country and said, `You know, protecting this land is a higher public value,‴ Rait said.